Saturday, September 24, 2011


An untitled Sermon on Matthew 21:21-32

Proper 21- Lect. 26, September 24/25/26 – FE & PLC (Monday)
Matthew 21: 23-32 (Argument about Authority, two sons refuse)

A little Bible Study first. To understand what the scripture is telling us, we need to understand the culture and the politics swirling around this Jesus of Nazareth. Up to this point in the story of Jesus, we have heard of Jesus living and working in the hill country around the Sea of Galilee – he has been dealing – with some exceptions – with the people who live in such villages and towns. The local men and women, peasants, fisherman, some small traders, a few tax collectors – those who pressure the people for coins for the oppressing Romans.

Jesus had some contacts with the better educated, the better type of people – the head of the synagogue there, a Roman officer, and especially the men called Pharisees. In the villages these would be those who had more education, probably more land, so they were more comfortable. They were challenged by Jesus because they believed in keeping the law strictly, without gray areas.

Jesus had been working in the back country. His message was upsetting to some people – his powerful vision of the kingdom of God/heaven as present, near, accessible to the ordinary believing person, without going through Temple rituals or keeping every last tiny requirement of the expanded set of regulations – was deeply offensive to the believing Pharisee.

But the ultimate issue, the real trouble, the button-pushing offense was this: Jesus and his followers implied that Jesus himself was somehow connected to the Saving Work of God Almighty in a critical, exclusive and powerful way. Jesus was . . . even at this point in his ministry, the claim spread . . . Jesus was not only a charismatic traveling preacher, not only a great teacher, not only a Rabbi, but more – a divinely appointed prophet – no, more – the Messiah, the Chosen One, the anointed inheritor of David’s power as King, or in addition that he was the mysterious Son of Man bringing in the End of Days – and even whispered the non-Jewish idea that he was the Son of God –that God’s own exclusive divinity had been divided and rested in Jesus – the laborer from the village of Nazareth.

That is what we need to remember when we contemplate these tough passages. The day before this discussion - about authority and two sons who refused in different ways - Jesus had dropped the cloak of hidden-ness as just a traveling preacher.

He entered Jerusalem and his reputation ran before him – and the crowds proclaimed him King, Messiah, David’s heir – they gave a royal welcome – the streets sang. The people in power – the Pharisees of Jerusalem, the minders of the Temple, the Romans – looked on with surprise, perhaps horror.

Jesus entered the temple and in great anger turned over the tables of those who sold animals for the sacrifices. The sick who haunted the temple courts, yearning for healing, converged on him and received his blessing, and found their answer. The cry – Hosanna to the Son of David filled the temple – not only the streets – the cry Hosanna to the Son of David was heard in the temple, shaking the very stones and the very hearts of those in authority.

The next day he comes back to the Temple, and is teaching, and that is the context for this story. “By what authority do you do these things? Who gave you this authority?” These things – coming into Jerusalem like a king, turning over the tables in the outer courts like the Master of the Temple, healing directly by hand, without sacrifices, without the blessing of the priests, teaching as if he is a famous man – these things must be explained. These things are too defiant to be allowed.

Jesus is no longer hidden in the back country of Galilee. He is out there in front of all – peasants in the country and tenement dwellers in the city, soldiers and scribes, priests and governors.

“By what authority do you do these things?” The same authority that John the Baptist had. The Will of God.

He is fulfilling God’s will and he understands that his power comes from the same place that John’s baptism came from – the Will of God. God willed John’s baptism for repentance and the forgiveness of sins – that baptism also challenged the authority of the Temple. God wills Jesus’ ministry in the same way – to challenge the authority of Temple and Priest and Law. God wills that Jesus himself shall be the avenue to God’s kingdom – that this path Jesus is taking – this path, now of conflict and challenge, this path which now leads straight to the horrific death of the cross – this path shall be the way for the followers of God’s will. That was Jesus’ answer then, and it is the answer now.

To understand the will of God is the peculiar task of every citizen of the kingdom. To do the will of the FATHER is the duty of every child. And every child has the question asked of them – “Son, daughter, go and work in the vineyard today.” “By whose authority?” If you were ever an adolescent (most of us are past that age, praise be to God) you recognize this dynamic of defiance of authority, defiance of the parent, the eternal questioning: “why is his will to be dominant over mine?” Why is the will of the Father more important than what I want? Why should my freedom be constrained by the requests of my father?”

Is this resistance fear? Selfishness? Stubbornness? Sin? In the story of Jesus coming into the Temple it was all these things - all these things that lead to the last days, the arrest, the torture, the cross.

And for all of us – it is the same set of responses to that question – asked of us: “Go and work in the vineyard today.” And we are stubborn and selfish and certainly we say – oh, yes sir, but we do not go. We answer the question, in our hearts – by whose authority will our lives be run? By whose authority will our days be ordered? By whose authority will our choices be made?
By our own authority – we think. I choose how to spend my days and I don’t choose to be with the community at worship on Sunday. I choose to how to spend my money, and I don’t choose to support my faith community, much. I choose my friends, and how I spend my time, and how my morals are expressed in my life.

I am my own authority, we say. The book of God – well, it’s only advisory. The will of God – is unclear, but it probably is exactly like my will. The story of Jesus the Christ – it’s all about love and acceptance and being true to yourself – not about crosses and pain and sacrifice and work and honor. I am my own authority and I don’t really know what this vineyard is – I don’t know and really don’t care about the work of the kingdom. So the call to give falls on deaf ears. The call to teach is passed on to a very few. The call to worship is answered by absence. The call to leadership is denied.

By whose authority do you do these things, the Pharisees asked Jesus. John the Baptist came in righteousness and did the will of the Father – and called people to repentance. Did you notice? And Jesus came and called people to love and serve and sacrifice. Did you notice? By whose authority do you live?

(the call to the vineyard takes many shapes – the call to give support, the call to teach, the call to worship, the call to justice, the call the leadership.)

What do you think? A man had two sons – one gave lip service to the father’s will and authority, and never went to the vineyard and the other resisted at first, but bowed his head, and went and did what the father desired. Which one are you?

Friday, September 16, 2011

parable of the vineyard workers

first thoughts - thinking about the parable of the vineyard workers - always a difficult one.

This story is always seen as metaphor, never as literal. Who would do this? What would it mean for us if we take it seriously, as literal ? Is the labor the work we do for the church, and the denarius our ticket into heaven? Is this an argument for socialism (I would love to preach that!) Preachers get hung up on the fairness issue, on the psychology of the individual who resents the late comers who get paid the same. Can this be preached without that discussion of fairness and rights and privilege?

Think differently – is this a parable about getting into heaven? Jesus says it is about the Kingdom of heaven, and the last sentence connects it to God’s gracious acceptance of the children and the poor. Could this be a parable about living in the community, about here and now? About gracious acceptance of each other for who we are, for what we can do, looking at each other with our quirks and faults and failures and seeing that God’s kingdom is among us?

Again and again – who you are in this life does not get you into heaven. Does not make you a citizen of the Kingdom of God. What you do – good deeds – does not get you there. Hearing the preaching gets you there. Accepting the invitation. Coming along on the vineyard express. Being part of the community of faith-work.

Parables can be negative examples. The ungrateful steward is one, here is another one.

I'm working in a hidden time of stress and anger, in a micro-climate of frustration and pending change. What is the good word?

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Live in the Daylight

(The story was found in this thoughtful post. It's by Rabbi Zoe Klein and is a reflection on her trip to Ghana)

Ancients used night and day as opposites – because they had to – because they would be immobilized in darkness – some things couldn’t get done, and some things were more likely to happen – bad things. Both in cities and in rural villages, privacy was rare. The level of private lives that we enjoy is truly a modern invention – unheard of in ancient days. Not only would your family know you what you do, but so would everyone else.

If you were grasping after money, people would know it. If you squandered your money in food and drink, that would get around. If you were a married man, and kept a mistress, that would be known. If you were slacking off at work, if you were cheating, if you were going after the latest fad in exotic eastern deities - well, it would come back on your community.

Those early Christian communities understood themselves as living in spots of light amidst darkness – true worship among false idols, taking care to respect and honor their bodies instead of wasting away in sexual immorality and drunkenness, learning to treat others with kindness as beloved children of the Father God – all the differences between this new faith in Christ Jesus that stood apart from the foolish chasing after the whims of this god or goddess, this deal or that patronage.

“See how they love each other” was the statement. See how their visible lives reflect what they believe – see how their choices outline that love that enriches their lives.

Live as if you are in broad daylight, says Paul. Live as if your life is visible – not only to God – but visible in the open marketplace, to your neighbors. Live Love, he says. Live as if Love – true love of neighbor – were not a theoretical concept – but Live Love because Love has been made real to you.

That is what makes Paul’s faith different from any other religion of that time or now – Live Love because Love has been made real for you. Put on Jesus Christ, put on the armor of light – that is your new garment of Love. That’s the garment for Daytime, for living in the daylight, the garment of loving the neighbor as yourself. Notice that Paul does not abandon the commandments of Old Time, the Old Testament, but, like Jesus, he takes them further – sees in them the continuity – Love your neighbor as yourself.

Paul is quoting Jesus here – he is so close to the original tradition, so close to the words of Jesus. As Christ loved – so are you to love. And that love is not hidden, cannot be hidden. In the transparent world of Paul and Jesus – acting out of true love of the neighbor will be a clear sign that something is different here – it will be like night and day. ‘See how they love each other.’

Even when the community is broken – as is suggested in Matthew 18, when the community is broken by individual sin – the community acts in love – sin is identified, named, and gently brought to light – in effect, echoing the greatest commandment – love your neighbor as yourself.

For this community. Every Christian community, carries the life and love of Christ within it. So it is promised, and so it must be – no one can escape that. Each individual puts on Jesus Christ, but the community in concert, when we live and work together – must be understood as the Body of Christ – where two or three are gathered – doesn’t just mean it’s good to gather together, but that we have an obligation to consider what we are doing together in the light and mission of Christ.

Live Love – for weeks now the wisdom from St. Paul has been about Love – about Agape – the kind of open, giving, love-for-others – that marks and makes the Christian community. We show this love in serving our neighbors – yes, the picnic, yes, the afterschool program (still looking for volunteers, I’m sure), yes, the provision of space for programs, yes, the education of our own children and youth, yes, worship – but we also will be known for our own lives – for we live in day-light – we live in the open, we live in the eyes of God and each other.

The beginning of the Talmud asks the question: “Until what time can you say the evening Shema? (The prayer for evening and night-time) Can you say it even until dawn?
And if so, how do we even know what time that is? How do we know when the night is over and the day has arrived?

This classic question leads to this classic story: In which students try to answer this question for the rabbi. One says:” Rebbe, night is over and day arrives, when you can see a house in the distance and determine if that’s your house or the house of your neighbor.”

Another student responded: “Night is over and day arrives when you can see an animal in the field and determine if it belongs to you or to your neighbor.”

Yet another student offered:” Night is over and day has arrived when you can a flower in the garden and distinguish its color.”

No, no, no thundered the Rebbe. Why must you see only in separations, only in distinctions, in determining what something is not. No. Night is over and day arrives when you look into the face of the person beside you and you can see that he is your brother, she is your sister, that person is your neighbor. That you belong to each other. You see that you are one. Then, and only then, will you know that night has ended and day has arrived.