Sunday, September 21, 2008

Words that Mean Something

Matthew 21:23-32 (September 28, 2008)

I don't know that I've ever preached on this text before. As it so happens, because I'm doing a special series right now based on my congregation's mission statement, I won't be preaching on it this year. However, some time ago I said "yes" when asked if I would prepare some comments for this week, and I've learned that it's important to honor one's commitments....

Two sons were told by their father that there was work to be done. One refuses to work, but later changes his mind. The other says "OK, I'll do it," but then does not go.

In looking through various online commentaries and sermons, I find that many preachers ignore the original context. The son who says he'll go but then changes his mind represents the religious leaders of Jesus' day. They said they'd follow, but their actions have not backed up their words.

I think I've skipped preaching on this for two reasons: one, I didn't want to risk making it sound as if Jesus' harsh words toward the religious leaders should be directed at all Jews. It would take some work to explain this in a way that adequately portrays the context as well as being appropriate to the gospel. And second, the basic idea of the parable--that words are meaningless if they're inconsistent with one's actions--seems so simple, like something a parent tells a young child, that it would be insulting to preach this to a congregation.

And yet, people do often say one thing and then do another. "Who will help out at the church workday?" Fifteen hands go up, but when the work day arrives, only three are present. What happened to the other twelve? They said they'd be there. Where are they?

Words are important. Or at least, they should be. And yes, it is a lesson that parents teach their children. I tell my own sons to do something. I tell them repeatedly. "OK, Dad!" But it doesn't get done. They call each other names, and when upset, will even yell, "I hate you!" Do they mean it? Not really. Yet they need to realize that words have power. In this case, the power to hurt.

But it's not just children who need that message. I admit, I was tempted to send in a note saying, "I'm taking a brief break from the lectionary and so am unable to post on the blog this week." Wouldn't that have been ironic?

"Yes, I'll go do the work." "Yes, Jesus, I'll follow you." Those are powerful words. But they become meaningless if they are inconsistent with one's actions.

More on this theme can be found in a previous post by Dan Mayes here.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

The First Shall be Last...

by Brian Kirk

Here we go again with one of Jesus' wacky parables. It never fails that when I preach this text someone comes up to me afterwards and insists that I just don't seem to see the inherent unfairness in paying everyone the same wage for different amounts of work! My reply: Of course it's unfair. Nobody ever claimed the Kingdom of God was fair. And lucky for us that it isn't. It isn't fair. But it is full of grace and compassion and a love that doesn't keep a record of wrongs and rights.

This pable in Matthew is best read within its context. Before this passage we have several related teachings from Jesus. He tells the rich young man that, since he has done all the other things on his "I'm a good person" checklist, all that is left is to go and sell his possessions and give the proceeds to the poor. And the young man goes away in sorrow. This was apparently not the answer he wanted to hear. Then we have Jesus' teachings about how difficult it will be for the rich to enter the Kingdom. The disciples are perplexed by this teaching and Jesus assures them that those who are willing to give up all to follow him will inherit eternal life. Following this Sunday's text from Matthew, we have Jesus being approached by the mother of the Zebedee boys, wanting a parent-teacher conference to ask Jesus to make them the leads in the school play (so to speak). Jesus' eventual response: "Whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant. . . just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve." All this brackets our parable of the workers in the vineyard.

Though much could be said about this parable being about grace and justice to the poor and sharing God's resources extravagantly, at its core this text seems to be saying, "Stop worrying about what you have or don't have or what you still need to earn or whether you are good enough or worthy enough. Everything good that God has to give you is already yours. Stop looking at the other guy's possessions/status/opportunities and wondering whether or not he deserves them and see what God has already given to YOU: grace, forgiveness, compassion, love." This is the message Jesus is trying to pass on to the rich young man, but he knows the fellow will never see the truth of it until he gets rid of the stuff in his life that is blocking his view of God's good gifts. It's the message Jesus imparts to the Zebedee boys who are worried about their status and "getting to be first in the line" and Jesus knows they will never see the truth until they stop worrying about who deserves to be first and who deserves to be last. Just as WE can't see the radical truth of this parable until we are able to let go of our shouts of "But it's unfair!" and see that God's love and grace for all of us is completely and extravagantly and abundantly unfair.

As a side note, the Exodus reading for this Sunday provides a nice parallel to Matthew's teaching. The Israelites have been liberated from bondage and oppression . . . and all they can do is complain. "We're hungry! We'd have been better off if we stayed in Egypt." Are they suddenly unable to see the gift of freedom that God has placed before them. Instead of rejoicing in what they have, they despair over what they lack. And despite the fact this ungrateful bunch doesn't deserve it, God provides for them manna from Heaven. Was it fair for God to provide so much for those who complained? No, but God's love has nothing to do with being fair.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

A Tsunami of Grace

By Dennis Sanders

Matthew 18:21-35

When I was in college I was part of the Baptist college fellowship. Every so often, we had communion.

I really dreaded communion.

The pastor would talk about being careful that there was not anything that could get in the way of communion such as a broken relationship with someone in the group. There was a quiet place where people could go to hash things out. What I remember from that whole experience is that I was always worried that there was something- something, unknowing to me that would damn me. Communion became a time of fear to me, wondering if I was pure enough to receive the bread and wine.

Looking back, I understand the pastor's intent: that the community take communion seriously and be a community where there was no dissention, but unity. But the result was that people didn't feel worthy to come to God's table.

In today's text, Jesus tells the tale of a servant that owes his king a huge amount of money. He pleads for another chance and the king forgives him of the debt. He then sees another servant who owes him a few bucks. He doesn't show his fellow servant the same mercy- instead he has the servant thrown into jail. Word of this gets to king who ends up throwing the wicked servant into prison after all because he could not forgive his fellow servant.

The servant forgot what it meant to live in grace, and he isn't that only one.

At times we think that God's act of forgiveness which is expressed in the life, death and ressurection of Christ, come to us in drips and drops, only to us and no one else. But the reality is that God's grace is a deluge of love that has fallen on all of creation.

My Baptist group of twenty years ago was partially correct: I wasn't worthy to come to Table. I'm still not. No one is. It is only what God did in Christ, that any of us are able to come to the Table. We can come to the Holy Feast only because we are forgiven by God. We are swimming in the sea of grace.

But it is hard to see that ocean of grace sometimes. I write these words at 11:30pm on September 10, 2008. Tomorrow is the seventh anniversary of the terrorist attacks of 2001. When we think of events like 9/11 or the Holocaust, we wonder, how can one forgive? How can we ignore such sins?

Seeing the world as one filled with God's grace doesn't mean that everything will be roses. But we do know that while evil might seem to be winning in the world, it will not in the end. Evil in the end will be drowned in the tsunami of grace.

With that knowledge, we can go on loving and forgiving. Thanks be to God!

Friday, September 5, 2008

Where Two or Three Are Gathered...There is bound to be trouble!

By Brian Kirk

Matthew 18: 15-20

Though it's not my week, I thought I might post some quick thoughts on this Sunday's gospel text as I continue to ponder my sermon.
I think this passage from Matthew on how to handle conflict within the church is a prime example of why we must read scripture in context -- and preach it in context! Taken alone, this is a very un-Jesus like passage, suggesting that if we ultimately can't correct our brother or sister, we should basically throw the bums out. Focusing on the text alone, this might have been one of those occasions where I actually argue against scripture.

But, these words from Matthew take on a different light when we consider what comes before and after in the gospel. Prior to this passage, Matthew shares Jesus' parable of the Shepherd who is willing to leave behind his whole flock in order to find one lost sheep. And after this passage, we have the famous exhortation about forgiving another person seventy times seven. What, then, to make of this passage on conflict in the church in between these radical passages of giving all to save one who is lost and offering abundant forgiveness that doesn't keep a record of wrongs?

Perhaps when Matthew's Jesus is saying that we are to treat an errant brother or sister like a tax collector, we are to remember how Jesus treats such persons elsewhere in Matthew's gospel: with love and radical welcome. In this context, Matthew has taken a piece of conventional wisdom from his culture ("correct the wrong-doer or throw them out") and placed it in the context of Jesus' radical teachings, forcing us to see this so-called conventional wisdom in light of the unconventionality of the Empire of God.
My two cents.