Sunday, October 15, 2017

Leaving the Desert of Busyness: Matthew 22:1-14 - 19th Sunday after Pentecost

1Once more Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying: 2“The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son. 3He sent his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding banquet, but they would not come. 4Again he sent other slaves, saying, ‘Tell those who have been invited: Look, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet.’ 5But they made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business, 6while the rest seized his slaves, mistreated them, and killed them. 7The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city. 8Then he said to his slaves, ‘The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. 9Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.’ 10Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests.
11“But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe, 12and he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?’ And he was speechless. 13Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ 14For many are called, but few are chosen.” (NRSV)
rush hour by Beat K√ľng.  Creative commons image on flickr
One of my neighbors came up with the perfect trick for trick or treaters:

He put a bowl of candy out on his front porch, and behind it was a sign that read: “Take one piece.

Then he placed a hidden camera near the candy bowl, and sat behind a tall bush, watching the monitor—dressed up as the Boogeyman. 

Inevitably, some trick or treaters took two or more pieces.  A few especially-brazen youngsters emptied the whole bowl into their pillowcase.

When this happened, he jumped out from behind the bush and yelled, “I SAID ONE PIECE!

He certainly gave those errant youngsters a good scare—and he felt good about teaching them not to abuse someone’s generosity.

What’s really scary (and not in a humorous way) is the king we encounter in Jesus’ parable…

He throws a wedding banquet for his son, the crown prince—and invites the who’s who of the land.  This would’ve been the hottest ticket in the land.  But many blow off the invitation—because of more “more important matters.”  Some even kidnap, assault, and kill the king’s slaves who were sent to gather them in.

In his rage, the king destroys the murderers and the cities they live in—and then, refocuses his attention on the banquet.  He sends his slaves out into the streets to bring in everyone they could find, both good and bad—until the hall is full of guests.

But there’s another problem: a guest is not wearing a wedding robe.  The king asks him how he got in without one—and the poor sap has nothing to say.  The king has him bound and thrown out like a sack of trash. 

At this point, I’m feeling sorry for him.  He comes across as a victim of the king’s crazy obsession about having a full banquet hall full. 

But there are a few things we need to understand about this king: he doesn’t want a full hall to stoke his ego.  He wants a full hall because the presence of guests increases the joy of the occasion.  He wants people to share in his joy.  Free food is but a small part of the gift here.

That’s all that the improperly-clad man seemed to be interested in.  If he’d told the king that he couldn’t afford a wedding robe, the outcome would’ve been quite different.  But he said nothing.  He didn’t care.

The folks who didn’t come didn’t care either.  All that mattered was their farms, businesses, and their own more important matters.

This parable teaches that there is nothing that you can take for granted more than the gift of God in Jesus Christ and the invitation to stand up and be counted as a member of God’s family. 

In all our lives (including mine), there is a point where you say to “NO” to Jesus—and go your own way.  Then, you pick up your smartphone.  You turn on your TV.  You choose sports, recreation, possessions; whatever you think will make you happy.  You strive for perfection.  You busy yourself to exhaustion.  Whatever makes you look good. You wear your Christianity like a Halloween costume, but only when it benefits you. 

You claim the grace of God—but God’s grace has no claim on you.  Your neighbor’s good matters only to the extent that it impacts your own good.  Aggression, ambition, retribution win out over patience, compassion, and forgiveness.  You judge people as beneath you if they do not believe or live as you do. 

Today’s parable is one of the most disturbing in all of Matthew’s Gospel—and for good reason, because you can’t afford to take God’s grace lightly.  You are free to choose your commitments.  God’s grace must reach the very depths of who you are if it is going to have any effect—and you choose how far that goes.

You and I have cause to be uneasy, because without Jesus, we are hungry, naked, and lost.  But Jesus wants you at his banquet where the feast of life is spread.  Get ready—because Jesus is going to meet you in your frustration, exhaustion, and disappointment.  He will meet you in your shame, guilt, and failure.  He will come to you in these difficult moments to break the vicious cycles in your life and give you life anew!  And God’s not going to give up easily on you!

Life in Christ is like getting new clothes as a child—at first, it may not feel right—but you’ll grow into it!  It’s the life that was meant for you!

When you’re feeling anxious or uneasy, and your heart is longing for something more—Jesus will be calling you!  He wants to break the vicious cycles that wear you down and show you life anew!  Let every choice and commitment be a trust in his promise.  And God will fill you with wonder as you witness God’s grace and work it with your own two hands! 

It’s time to leave the desert of busyness—because the feast of life is spread.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Life After Las Vegas: Philippians 3:4b-14 - Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost

[Paul writes:] 4bIf anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: 5circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; 6as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.
7Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. 8More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ 9and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith. 10I 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. 13Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, 14I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus. (NRSV)
Autumn Sunrise by Kristie.  Creative commons image on flickr
Monday afternoon, I sat inside my parked car to pick up Becca at school. 

It was the day after last Sunday’s massacre of concertgoers in Las Vegas, the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history.

A woman approached me and asked if she had come to the right place to pick up her granddaughter, and I told her “yes.” 

She went on to say, “I’m so scared at the world—and I just want my granddaughter with me today.  When I was in school and my kids were in school, you didn’t have to worry about these kinds of things happening.  Now, I don’t even want to leave the house.”

If she’d said those things the prior Friday, I would’ve thought she was being melodramatic.  But after Sunday night, I can’t blame her. 

Once again, we’re thrust into a world we don’t want to live in—which is exactly what we felt after Oklahoma City; Columbine; 9/11; Virginia Tech; the Boston Marathon; Sandy Hook Elementary; Charleston, the Pulse Nightclub in Miami; and at so many other national tragedies.  We all want to go back to a time when these things never happened and life was so much simpler.  But, that’s impossible. 

So how does Jesus expect you to live in a world full of so much violence?  And violence isn’t just limited to bullets, bombs, swords, airplanes, or speeding vehicles: We do violence with our words and our prejudices.  There’s the violence of hunger and poverty, too…

The Apostle Paul has much to teach us by his beautiful words of testimony from his letter to the Philippians.

Once upon a time, Paul went by the name Saul—and he enjoyed a high position within political and religious establishment.  As he testifies, he was circumcised on the eighth day; a member of the tribe of Benjamin; a faultless and blameless adherent to Jewish Law.  And: he had the authority to persecute and kill anyone who confessed Jesus Christ as God’s Son.  Frankly, it is impossible to imagine wielding that kind of power.

Then one day, on the road to Damascus, Jesus hits Saul with a lightning bolt—and from that moment on, Paul is Jesus’ servant—proclaiming his death and resurrection wherever he goes.  And it wasn’t long before the power Paul once wielded was turned against him.  By the time he writes this letter, he’s in prison.  Nevertheless, his words can barely contain his joy.  He’s glad to have suffered the loss of all things.  He’s glad to be a prisoner for Christ and share in his sufferings.  All the power, prestige, and prominence he’d once enjoyed are now garbage to him.  To be blunt, it doesn’t mean squat. 

Please understand that Paul is not boasting about his faith.  This is not a “look what I’m doing” kind of testimony.  This is Paul’s testimony of what Christ has accomplished in him; “because Jesus has made me his own.”  The future may bring him more loss, more suffering, and even death—but he is joyfully assured that resurrection awaits him in Christ. 
Events like Las Vegas, Puerto Rico, 9/11, and countless others are watershed moments in which we cannot deny the reality of death and our powerlessness against it.  All of the stress we experience—and the evil we do—comes from the fear of death.  And death isn’t limited to the body.  Death is loss and failure; poverty and pain.  We try everything humanly possible to keep death at a distance and grab everything we can to make ourselves happy.  We fight each other for power, popularity, and possessions—and create death for each other.  We act as though we can control our destinies.  But death doesn’t care if you’re rich or poor or prestigious.  The only way you can prevail against death is by clinging to the one who overcame it. 

You don’t need to question where Jesus was last Sunday night, because the cross assures you: he was shot and dying on the ground.  He was running out in the line of fire to rescue those in harm’s way.  He is in the hospital rooms, recovering; he’s at the gravesides grieving.  And he is with everyone who is terrified by what this world has become. 

This is our hope in these dreadful times—that Jesus is going to prevail. 

I want to do something strange on this Harvest Home Sunday, and share with you the prayer of St. Patrick:
Christ beside me, Christ before me,
Christ behind me, Christ within me,
Christ beneath me, Christ above me.

I invite you to pray these words as you step out into this world and all that it has become. Nothing will happen to you for which Jesus cannot prevail.  If you lose everything you’ve built your life upon, Jesus is going to have the last word.

This is the day that the Lord has made.  The joy of the Lord awaits you, and not in the pleasures and pursuits of this world that come and go so quickly—but where charity, love, and hope prevail.  So let your new day begin with a readiness to meet Christ in your struggles and to answer the call to his work—as you, the Body of Christ, do the good that is nearest to you, and conquer with him the death and darkness.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

From NO to GO: Matthew 21:23-32 - Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost

23When [Jesus] entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching, and said, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” 24Jesus said to them, “I will also ask you one question; if you tell me the answer, then I will also tell you by what authority I do these things. 25Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” And they argued with one another, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say to us, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ 26But if we say, ‘Of human origin,’ we are afraid of the crowd; for all regard John as a prophet.” 27So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” And he said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.
28“What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ 29He answered, ‘I will not’; but later he changed his mind and went. 30The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘I go, sir’; but he did not go. 31Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. 32
For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.” (NRSV)
Kefraya by Jim Budd.  Creative commons image on flickr.
I was thumbing through the pages of one of those novelty gift catalogs that you find in your junk mail, and I came across a selection of “unwelcome mats.”  You had your choice of doormats inscribed with the words “unwelcome”; “get lost”; “go away”; “no, we don’t want any”; and “oh no, not you again.”

I hate to say it, but I have to respect the honesty of anyone who would lay one of these at their front door.  I can’t say that I’m particularly welcoming of door-to-door salespersons and people trying to change my religion.  Why should my doormat say something about me that isn’t true?

All the time, I say things like: “Let me know if there’s anything I can do...” “We should get together sometime...”  “That’s a great idea and you have my support.”  Trouble is, I don’t follow through.  So what does it say about me that I make false promises?

The same thing happens in the brief parable Jesus speaks in today’s Gospel. 

A man has two sons.  He goes to the first and says, “go and work in the vineyard today.”  He answers “No, I will not”; but later changes his mind and goes.  The man goes to his second son and says the same.  He answers, “I will go”; but he doesn’t go.

I’m sure that both sons had commitments other than their father’s vineyard.  Perhaps they had families of their own.  Maybe they were just exhausted.  When the second son said “yes, I’ll go,” he probably meant well.  He might have had every intention of going…

If there’s one thing for which I need forgiveness, it’s for all the times I’ve made promises I’ve failed to keep.  It’s so easy to say “yes” and tell people what they want to hear, only later to justify your failure to follow through because “I’m busy” or “I didn’t get around to it.”  Realistically, there’s always more to do than can ever be done.  You can’t be everything to everyone.  And God knows this.

But you and I have the absolute ability to choose our commitments—just like the two sons. Something or someone has authority over how you live your life—and the choices you make.  Most of the time, you choose without even thinking about it...

Yet regardless of whether you say no to Jesus or just fail to follow through, his invitation to you stands.  This isn’t about earning your salvation through good works.  This is an invitation into the life-giving work of God’s kingdom.  This is an invitation to the things that truly matter to God.

When Jesus bids you to come, he’s not promising you wealth, recognition, or control.  He’s promising you death and resurrection.  You’re sacrificing your wants to the needs of others.  You’re forsaking comfort, convenience, and gratification.  You’re facing your fears and taking risks.  You’re giving yourself into labors for which you cannot see or control the outcome.  You’re making promises that aren’t necessarily easy to keep.  And it’s always easier to reject Jesus than anything or anyone else.

This leads us back to the first son who declines his father’s invitation—then goes.  When Jesus invites you into his kingdom, he doesn’t make it easy to say “no.”  Jesus wants you in his kingdom.  He has the power to turn your “no” into a “yes.”

So consider, then, what a life of Christian discipleship really is, and ask: “what is Jesus inviting me into that I’m saying ‘no’?”  What is it that you can never see yourself doing for Jesus?  Who do you need to forgive—and ask forgiveness?  What is it that you know you should be doing—but you’re putting off, like coming to bible study; taking on a leadership role here at church; or giving more of your financial resources?  Because you don’t have the time, the energy, the skill, or the strength?

Very often, you will find that new life lies just beyond the commitments you don’t want to make or seem unable to keep. 

I say, that if you’re going to say “no” to Jesus, make it a big NO—because then you’re being honest with yourself and with Jesus, which is where repentance begins.  Jesus will take that “no” and transform it into “go.”

Today is a new day and the future’s open wide.  You belong in God’s family.  You belong in God’s kingdom.  You’ve tried the rest, now trust Jesus to show you the rest.