Sunday, October 22, 2017

Declaration of Ownership: Matthew 22:15-22 - Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost

15Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap [Jesus] in what he said. 16So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. 17Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” 18But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? 19Show me the coin used for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. 20Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” 21They answered, “The emperor’s.” Then he said to them, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” 22When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away. (NRSV)
coins by Pimthida.  Creative commons image on flickr.

I was at the checkout counter at a chain drugstore to buy a bottle of cough syrup.

The cashier was a young man, about age 20.

He asks me if I’d like to donate to a charity serving sick children, and I say, “no, thank you.”

Immediately, he rolls his eyes and says, “it’s sad people don’t help.  Your total for the cough syrup and not caring about children is $8.99”

I’m too stunned even to react.  I don’t know if he’s joking or if he was serving me up with a passive-aggressive guilt trip.  If it was the latter, he was extremely successful.  I left there asking myself, would it have been so bad if I’d given a dollar? 

I soon realized: I don't like being asked for my money.  The IRS, the landlord, and the utility companies already take plenty—which is why I wanted to keep my dollar.  But does it really belong to me?

Ownership was at the heart of Jesus’ answer to the question, “is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor?” 

Taxes were a sore subject for Jews living under the Roman occupation.  For starters, most working people barely earned enough money to live on.  They already had to pay taxes to support the temple and the religious establishment.  Adding insult to injury, they were required to pay the emperor for the “privilege” of living under his ruthless, godless rule over a land and people that ultimately belonged to God.

What a perfect way for the Jesus’ enemies to trap Jesus into one of two capital crimes: blasphemy against the temple or treason against the emperor. 

When Jesus says, “give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s,” his words are more than just a rhetorical “check-mate.”  This is reality.
They and we are subject to our rulers (whether we like it or not).  You can’t go “off the grid.”  You are a citizen of this world’s kingdom.  Death, taxes, and daily bread are but a few of the debts you can’t escape. 

The coin Jesus uses in his show and tell proves a major point: it contained the emperor’s face and was inscribed with the words, “Tiberius Caesar, august son of the divine Augustus, high priest.”  That’s a claim of ownership.  It’s a claim of divinity.  Caesar is making an idol of himself—which is how things go in the world’s kingdom.

You live in a vast marketplace of idols.  An idol is anything you for which claim ownership for your exclusive benefit.  They give you power and control.  They are possessions and positions that boast of your success and prestige.  They are the commitments that dominate your time.  They are the voices that occupy your attention.  They are your beliefs that you’re righteous and superior and that God is in your side, against another.  They are the desires for which you will sacrifice anything to achieve. 

Sin is selling your soul to these idols, believing they will deliver what they promise.  You can’t own them, but they can own you.  Idolatry happens whenever you let something or someone take ownership of your time, talent, treasure; your body, your mind, your soul.  And they will.

Though they may make you happy for a time, they will ultimately deliver you into exhaustion, discontent, and fear.  They create poverty and oppression and divide neighbor against neighbor.  They will pollute God’s creation.  As long as you worship them, you are in their debt.

But remember: idols are false gods.  They cannot deliver what they promise.   Anything or anyone that sets itself up against God will fall.  Everything in this world belongs to God —and that’s great news.

Life is better with God owning your body, mind, and soul.  Idols divide and destroy, but God saves.  God forgives.  God loves.  God makes all things new.  Even though you own nothing, God has entrusted you with gifts by which you are joined to the inbreaking of God’s kingdom.  The Church is the assembly of God’s people exercising God’s gifts so that love destroys hate, grace destroys greed, abundance destroys poverty, and life destroys death.  Stewardship multiplies the blessing God’s gifts bring.  God can always do greater with everything you would attempt to keep.

Jesus is here to break down the altars you raise up to this world and its idols—to raise up an altar for the healing of a nations; to set a table where the feast of life is spread. 

If you want to know the idols God is about to break down, follow your exhaustion.  Follow your stress. 

When you say “I’m busy,” why is that? 

Where is your cash flowing?  Is it for daily bread or something else? 

Whose voices are you listening to?  How much news are you digesting?  What are you angry about?  Offended about?  Stressing about?  Who or what is occupying your mind?

Rather than being owned by and indebted to these idols and all the heartache they create, remember that God owns you—in order to love you, accept you, and save you.  You belong to Jesus and Jesus belongs to you.  His kingdom is yours forever. 

Seek God’s kingdom and its righteousness—and God will surely add to your blessing.

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.