Tuesday, October 11, 2011

The Choice

First Presbyterian Church - Lafayette, Louisiana
October 9, 2011 - Ordinary (28 A)
Isaiah 52:13-53:12
Philippians 4:1-9
Matthew 22:1-14

How many of you remember the song O Be Careful, Little Eyes? Some of you may have sung it as a child or to your children. I’m not sure where or when I first encountered that song, but I have to admit that it has always made me uncomfortable.

O be careful little eyes what you see
O be careful little eyes what you see
There's a Father up above
Who’s looking down on you in love
So, be careful little eyes what you see

And it continues with be careful what you hear, what you do, and where you go. The thing that has always made me uncomfortable is that it seems like a set up. God loves me, but God is watching me like a hawk. So, I had better be careful. I have choices to make - and I had better make good ones.

That is the implication of today’s parable; at least that is the traditional interpretation of this parable. God is the King. Jesus is the son. The invited guests are the Jews and their religious leaders. The servants are the prophets - rejected and killed by those God first called to join the heavenly banquet. The people in the street are the poor whom God calls us to care for. The robe is the covering of righteousness that we accept as invited guests. Grace is offered in the reversal of fortune between those who think they are righteous and those who accept God’s righteousness. That all seems pretty reasonable so far, right?

And then there is this guest who does not have a robe. This guest who, for many, represents the part of our character that resists the transformation God offers. This guest, for many, is an example of the type of person who offers a commitment of lip service with no action to back it up. This guest did not come by invitation, but snuck in and did not receive the garment of invitation. This uninvited guest deserves the judgment of the King! This intruder is bound by his own actions and cast into the outer darkness not only by the King’s choice, but also by his own. And then Jesus delivers the real kicker - for many are called, but few are chosen.

Wow. Where is the grace of God in that? Where is the mercy of God in that? For that matter, how can the God who was made incarnate in the person, work, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ be compared to a capricious and vengeful king that burns entire cities in response to rejection by their leader? Even more so, how can this be the God who said through the prophet Isaiah, “Is my hand shortened, that it cannot redeem? Or have I no power to deliver?”

Now, don’t get me wrong. This parable of Jesus is about choices, but it is not primarily about our choices. It is a parable about invitation and acceptance, and it is a parable about rejection. However I think there is more to it than meets the eyes - especially when our eyes are wearing the glasses of 2,000 years of Christian tradition and practice.

Some scholars have suggested a different view that might be more in keeping with the original audience - whether it be those who witnessed the event first hand or those who read Matthew’s account a generation after the death and resurrection of Jesus.

Of course we can only guess at who they were and what they heard, but some have suggested - from this perspective - that the king is not God, but rather the Jewish King who was a puppet for the Roman Empire. The King is the Empire. The Empire is the King. As for the rest of them, there were two other movements in Jewish society at that time - the Zealots and the Temple Leaders.

The Zealots were the ones who resist the King and are slaughtered. The Temple Leaders were the ones who conformed and preserved social order. The Temple Leaders were the ones who dutifully put on their robes and nervously attended the banquet after hearing what the King did to the ones who refused.

Who, then, is the uninvited guest who stands silent before the King when asked why he will not conform? Certainly the readers of Matthew’s Gospel would know of Isaiah’s herald of the suffering servant, for John quotes Isaiah at Jesus’ baptism! Certainly the readers of Matthew’s Gospel would see in the following chapters that Jesus stands before Pilot in silence before being stripped of his robe and crucified - killed in a way that all Jews knew was disgraceful. Cursed is anyone who hangs from a tree! Cast out of the covenant is anyone who is killed in this way!

So what does it mean for us today to say that Jesus is this suffering servant by whose stripes we are healed? Certainly it means that those who accept this gift and repent will be joined in the heavenly banquet. But where does it connect with the here and now?

We live in a time in which many are more concerned with their own needs than they are with the needs of others - an accusation made by people on every side of every issue. We live in a time with much anger. We live in a time of war and protest. We live in a time of conflict between generosity and expectation. We live in a time of conflict between social contracts and individual rights. We live in a time where there is great poverty and great wealth. We live in a time where there is both rejection and acceptance of individuals and groups based on their expression of certain values, and we live in a time that only differs from any other by the size of our population. For as it says in Ecclesiastes, “All is a vanity and a chasing after the wind. There is nothing new under the sun.”

We have always been this way, and in some ways we always will be. Whether we fight and resist or conform and adapt, there is only one who has ever embodied the will of God - and that is Jesus Christ! So we approximate his actions when we suffer for and with others. We approximate his actions when we refuse to conform to powers that subjugate and divide.

Sometimes we must be silent to demonstrate the power of God that is made perfect in weakness.

Sometimes we must speak.

Always we must be willing to risk. Always we must take heart in the choice that is before all choices - the choice that God made to love and accept us no matter what!

We do live in a politically charged time, and I do not believe it is my right or responsibility to tell you what to do or how to vote. I believe this is where Paul’s statement from earlier in Philippians comes in. You must “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.”

Yet we - as a congregation - still have opportunities to make public statements. In fact we - as a congregation - can’t help but offer a public witness. That is why Paul urged such union in the church in Philippi. It was as if he was saying, “Psst! Guys! People are watching!” Any parent knows how important it is to have a unified response to conflict. Even the littlest ones on my 5yr old son’s soccer team are starting to see the value in a unified witness!

And we have one here. We have one in our expression of care for the needy in our community. We have a unified witness in our offering of hospitality to others. We have one in our willingness to be vulnerable to others and coordinate ministries that we simply cannot do without the support of other partner congregations! Last Friday I saw a good example of it.

In fact, I could have sworn that I saw Jesus bound for others. I could have sworn that the baskets of unwanted books, donated items, and hand made scarves in our Christmas Basket ministry contained the incarnate presence of God. As CUPS Elves lovingly secured the baskets in clear plastic and colorful ribbon, it seemed to me that the things bound and cast out had been transformed into that which gives hope to the hopeless.

You see, we do not know whom it is that God has chosen - but we know that they include the bad and the good. We know that it is not something that can be earned. We know that salvation is about the choice God has made for us and that all of our choices flow from that one choice. We know that our public witness is to invite others in and to demonstrate the love of God for all. We know that we must come to some agreements at times in order to demonstrate God’s love through specifically intentional actions. And we know that our individual lives must be ordered according to that same purpose.

Above all, we know that our task is not simply to accept the invitation of God, but to live as a gathered community that expresses the invitation of God. For in the words of the Apostle Paul, “Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.”

May it be so with you. May it be so with me, and to God be the glory. Amen.

Monday, October 03, 2011

Stewardship of Inheritance

First Presbyterian Church - Lafayette, Louisiana
October 2, 2011 - Ordinary (27A)
Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20
Philippians 3:4b-14
Matthew 21:33-46

The passages we have received today are the kind that many Presbyterians like. Indeed many who claim the name of Christian like these kinds of passages. The words we have received today are very comforting to many of us - which is nice since there are so many passages that confront us. We have the Ten Commandments, Paul’s encouragement of what lies ahead in eternity, and Jesus telling stories that discredit the Pharisees. These passages are orderly. They make sense. They offer the rules we follow, the promise for success, and a warning for failure. Not only that, they offer us the chance to point a finger at those nasty Pharisees. What more could we need?

The Pharisees were not all bad though. They were the rule keepers - even the rule makers at times. Had it not been for them the Jewish people may have been consumed, as other occupied people were, by the Roman Empire. Yet Jesus describes them in this parable as the wicked tenants. These tenants did not only break the rules - they shattered them! They used the Land Owner’s resources, killed and beat up his servants, and killed his son - because they wanted his inheritance!

“If we get rid of the heir,” they said, “the Land Owner will eventually die, and we’ll get to keep all of this stuff for ourselves!” And to this - to these wicked tenants - Jesus comparing the religious authorities. He had just cleared the temple and cursed a fig tree that did not produce fruit. He had just compared the religious leaders to the son who told his father he would work in the vineyard but did not. He had just finished telling them that the people they think least likely to be loved by God are in deed going to be rewarded for their repentance. Now he is telling them that their faithful rule making has become selfish rule breaking.

Hmm...that is not quite as comfortable for those of us who like things decently and in order. Maybe there is something that confronts us here after all. Maybe there is even something that convicts us, challenges us, and expects us to respond to these old words in a new way.

I think that is the part of Paul’s message that is so easy to overlook. Whatever we use to comfort ourselves or to make sense of our lives - the belief that we are trying our best to live a good life, the feeling that we could never live a life that is good enough, the idea that we are trying to be good but the cards are stacked against us - nothing we use to feel good about ourselves will ever get us where we have been created to go. All of the “best laid plans of mice and men” are simply trash in comparison to a life lived in concert with God’s will. Nothing we can attain is anything in comparison to what we will attain through faith in Christ.

And yet we have things we are supposed to do. And yet we have these rules to follow. We have these Commandments - not suggestions but commandments. We have this revelation of God through the invitation to follow the orders of the Creator of all things. You may have noticed that the first four are about our relationship with God, but interestingly enough, the last six are about our relationship with others - with other people and their property. These commandments were given as a means of salvation - not just eternal salvation, but salvation in the wilderness. They were given as a means of survival in the here and now and survival as a people in the years to come. They were given as an answer to the question, “Is God with us or not?”

I think that is the question we are trying to answer when we look to rules and order to help make sense of the things we do not understand. I think that is one of the reasons why there is so much emotion around the debates of posting the Ten Commandments in public property. I think the question, “Is God with us?” is part of the motivation for the emails some of us receive and some of us forward, asking others to do the same.

One email that I recently received tells a tale that originated in a book of stories from the venerated preacher, Fred Craddock. It tells of an older gentleman visiting other guests in a restaurant in the hills of Tennessee. He finds out that Craddock is a preacher and tells him a story of a young boy who grew up without a father and was ostracized by his community. One day the new preacher caught him on the way out and was trying to figure out who’s family the boy was a part of. He asked the boy who his father was. The congregation waited as the young minister realized his error and said, “Oh, I know you - you’re a child of God! Go out and claim your inheritance!” The boy is, of course, the older gentleman who is telling his own story story. This man is later revealed to Craddock as Ben Hooper, a former Governor of Tennessee.

It doesn’t really matter whether the Pastor’s affirmation changed the life of that little boy or whether it simply acknowledged the work that God was already doing in his life. What matters is that a child who others rejected was able to claim an inheritance that had already claimed him.

And that is really the question that these scriptures confront us with today. Will we claim the inheritance that has already claimed us, or will we try to take it by force? Will we use the commandments of God to justify our own actions and lives, or will we be guided by them into a right relationship with God and with others?

In many ways, we are the ones to whom God has given the vineyard. In many ways, we are the ones given the opportunity to bear fruit that is pleasing to God. The metaphor of Jesus as the Land Owner’s son is pretty obvious, but the catch is in the response of the Father to his son’s death. The Pharisees say that “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.”

Jesus does not disagree with them, but he also offers more grace than we might expect - even to them. Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the scriptures: ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes’? 43Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom. 44The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.”

And when I read this I realized he was talking to me, religious authority that I am, and I became convicted. I became convicted because I also heard Paul say, “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, 11if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead. 12Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.”

You see, I do not believe that it is enough to claim Christ as the cornerstone. Certainly we must claim Christ as a central point of orientation. That is what a cornerstone does for a building - it is the point of origin that orders the construction of the entire structure. And if the church were simply a building then that might be enough. But the church is not simply a building. The church is you and me. The church is all people everywhere who profess Jesus as Lord! The church is people who agree on what Jesus did for us, but can’t seem to agree on what we should do for him. The church is organic and dynamic. The church is expected to bear fruit and when it is not it is expected to be crushed!

And here is the grace in that. Because you see, “There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a watchtower. Then he leased it to tenants and went to another country.” You see the vineyard we have inherited has a wine press in it, and the church - the body of Christ - is invited to become new through our brokenness. We are invited to become pressed into something more capable, more hospitable, and more faithful through our limitations.

If you don’t believe me, just ask Anne Rachal how many people she fed last Wednesday night. If you think that was just because of the Luckey’s Jazz Quartet, then as Mirna Patrick how much peanut butter she has collected for the UCO. If you say that’s just because we made you feel guilty, then go ask Jan Harrelson how many emergency food bags we have given out over the last year. If you say that’s just because of the economy, then come by any morning and see the smiles and energy given off by meals on wheels drivers. And if you still don’t believe me, then come talk to Sue Turner about how many Christmas baskets have already been made; go to CUPS with Robert Nash and see how they are rebuilding lives one couch at a time; join us on Wednesdays for prayer and study! There are just so many opportunities here to plant and harvest and press as we watch for the coming of the Lord!

Of course not everyone can do everything, but everyone can do one thing - and that is to pray. Pray and be open to God’s presence. For God is not an absentee land owner. God is not waiting for us to mess up so we can be punished. God is with us in the lamb who is slain again and again and again for me and for you, so that we may bear fruit that is pleasing to God.

Our inheritance is here - in the baptismal font. Our inheritance is here - at this Lord’s Table. So, come. Come and claim the inheritance that has already claimed you! And to God be the glory, both now and always. Amen!

Encouragement

First Presbyterian Church - Lafayette, Louisiana
September 25, 2011 - Ordinary (26A)
Exodus 17:1-7
Philippians 2:1-13
Matthew 21:23-32

The story of the people of Israel’s journey through the wilderness of sin is one that more people in our culture can relate to these days than perhaps any other time in our past - excepting the days of the frontiersmen and women. More people transfer from town to town than ever before. More people switch careers than ever before. More people travel and find themselves physically and metaphorically in the wilderness than ever before.

My own family has had its share of moves, averaging one a year over the last five years. We’ve moved for jobs. We’ve moved for cheaper rent. We’ve moved so that we can be in a preferred school district. I complained about it on Facebook during our last move and was counseled by one of our wise and faithful elders who simply said, “Quit moving!”

Someone must have said that to Moses during this part of the story because the text says that they were traveling in stages. They had all the Mana and quail they needed, and the pit stops were becoming more frequent. As anyone who has ever been on a road trip (with all that you think you could ever need for the duration of the trip) knows, the added stops created space for arguments.

Perhaps it was God’s way of moving them forward. Perhaps it was simply a function of stopping and starting and stopping and starting. Perhaps they simply forgot to place their drink order when they asked for food. Regardless of the reason why, the Israelites were arguing with Moses. They weren’t simply complaining. They were at odds with him and ready to revolt.

So Moses tells the people, “Hey, I’m just doing my job here. You know, following directions?” And he pleads with God, “Um, God? Sorry to bother you, but ah...THEY’RE GOING TO KILL ME!”

So God has Moses use the very instrument that polluted the waters of the nile to strike the most “not water like” thing he could find - knowing God’s very essence would be right there to transform loss into providence! And they called that place “argument” because they tested God.

Last week we read about God testing the Israelites - looking to see what they contained - through an offering of providence. Here they test God, and God again reveals God’s self through providence. How much more encouraging could God be than to provide for their deepest need? How much more of God’s character could be revealed than to have the Creator lovingly embrace the creature through providing for the most obvious need? God cracks open the rock like a parent offering a glass of water for a child in the middle of the night. God recklessly cracks open the rock like a fire hydrant in July and watches the children of God dance and sing for delight.

Wouldn’t that be great! Wouldn’t that be incredible? Don’t you wish sometimes that God would step in and take over for us sometimes? Perhaps it would be nice. Perhaps God already has. Perhaps - God does it all the time, and we just don’t notice it. Of course I am not talking about the metaphysical level of turning a rock into a fountain. That is, unless we are talking about the rock of the human heart.

The reality is that we, as a people, do not need God to turn rocks into water. There are enough resources on this planet for everyone - even though there are droughts and famines in the world today. It’s hard to say that, much less hear it, without the attachment of generations of guilt trips about starving children in a variety of countries. It’s hard to hear or say that there is enough to go around without the knowledge that we have used this information for years as a guilt trip to get kids to eat their veggies and nothing more!

But the issue is so much bigger than a particular physical need. The issue is about courage. The issue is about motivation. The issue is about the ability to be consoled during our experience of need by the ability to care about someone else - especially when you do not want to!

That’s hard. That’s why Paul says, “If.” That’s why Paul says, “IF there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, THEN make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.” Oh. Is that all? Paul obviously wasn’t a Presbyterian!

But he was Christ’s faithful evangelist. He was aware that all believers everywhere will not agree on all things, all the time. And he was aware of the fact that God is pushing us - through the example of Jesus Christ - to become more and more concerned about the needs of others and less and less concerned about getting our own way. And I believe that Paul wanted us to hear these words as an encouragement, because I believe that Paul knew very well that the grace of God is not a thing to have.

The grace of God, the forgiveness of God, the invitation of God is certainly given to us, but it is not a thing to have. The grace of God, the mercy of God, the ever lasting love of God is something that once received it can only be responded to. God’s love is an if/then proposition. And so whether we act physically or through benevolent gifts, we do so because we are compelled spiritually - working out our own salvation in fear and trembling.

That may not sound very encouraging - unless you consider someone swinging a stick at your head encouraging - but I believe it is. I once knew a man with the most well behaved teenage children you can imagine. This was before having my own, so I asked him about discipline. He said, “I would never strike my children. They are much more concerned with disappointing me than they ever would be if I beat them.” And it was true. As I got to know their family I learned that the Father instilled such love in his children that they had become motivated by their love for him. I took this for a model for my relationship with God, and Treva and I have taken it as a model for our own style of parenting. On a good day it works well for us. On a good day I act as though I am concerned with pleasing God.

On a good day I am like the son who tells his father, “No, I’m too busy doing all this other stuff that I think is important.” But then I become compelled by my love for God to do the work. Most days I am a bit like the son who said, “Yes!” and then got distracted by personal pursuits. The trick is to realize that we are each a bit of both. The trick is to realize that there is nothing about me that is any better than anyone - and I mean anyone - else. For me, that is actually more encouraging than expecting God’s love to make me better, more important, or somehow more needed by others.

You see - tax collectors, prostitutes, and all those others that the church wishes to reject or deny will surely enter the kingdom of heaven before I will, and I find that encouraging. I find it encouraging because it means that God’s grace is not dependent on me, but that I am dependent on it! I find it encouraging because it means that when I am focused on my thirst there is yet another voice that reminds me that God is busy. God is busy providing for my deepest need.

My deepest need is not to fill my own belly or satisfy my own thirst. My deepest need is to be filled by concern for the needs of others. My deepest need is to experience the love and presence of God through demonstrating the humility of Christ in my conversations, in my actions, and my invitation to others to join in mutual love and service.

I think that is your need, too. At least, it sure seems that way. Last Sunday Myrna made a plea for more peanut butter for the U.C.O., and it rained down like Mana! Sue Turner and the C.U.P.S. Elves have set a goal for 1,000 baskets this year, and they are well on their way. Yesterday there were members young and old doing everything from shredding old documents to cleaning out kitchen cabinets and even cleaning the old storage shed! While we were working a young man who was hungry came by. The one thing we know we can do is give someone something to eat - and that’s just what we did. Come to think of it, we were all fed yesterday - not just those that were present, but the whole of our community was strengthened by the actions of a few like minded folks.

Seeing their passion for moving Christ’s church along made me think that it is possible that we have been journeying in stages. It is possible that we have gotten stuck along the way and some of us have become overly concerned with our need for water. I know I have, and I’ll tell you why. Our cash flow is such that we are paying the bills. That’s a good thing. The bad thing is that we do not have the cash flow to meet our budget for outreach.

Some of that is because we had a little bit of a slump in giving over the summer. Some of that is because giving normally takes a dip before the last quarter of the year and gets caught up by the end of the year. All of it will be taken care of in due time, if we attend to the One who is standing before us - waiting for us to strike the rock. All of it will be taken care of in due time, as we attend to the needs of the community God has called us to become, as we reach out to others in love and service, and as we allow the love of God to compel us to do the work we have been called to do.

Beloved of God, you will have to work out your own salvation in response to the grace you have received, but you are not alone - for surely the Lord is with us. Now to the One who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to God’s power that is at work within us, to God be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.