“Do This”

Sunday of the Body and Blood of Christ 6-3-18

Exodus 24:3-8; Psalm 116:12-18;Hebrews 9:11-15; Mark 14:12-26

 

In the largest sense of human history, the Solemnity we celebrate today is the story of God’s relationship with all of creation; an intimate relationship of The Creator with the creation. Without the soil and the sun and the rain, the plants do not grow, and there is no food.  Without food, there are no animals.  Without God, nothing exists.  It is a good day to pause and remember our interrelationship and the necessary balances God established in creation to sustain life.

But meditating on the largest sense of human history can make us feel tiny, and we can feel too tiny to think about the enormity of it all. So, perhaps it is well to focus on the small parts of creation at a level where we can better grasp ideas that seem to impact our lives more personally.

Our reading from Exodus is about Moses sprinkling the blood of animals which have been sacrificed as peace offerings to God. Moses sprinkles the blood on the altar, as our rituals might have us incense the altar.   Then there is a reading of the covenant with God, and the people renew their vows to be God’s People and obey the commandments God has given them, just we renew our baptismal promises on Easter.

Then Moses sprinkles blood on the people, just as we sprinkle the water of baptism. But there is another side to this idea.  Our Eucharist speaks of “the cup of my blood”, the blood of Jesus which is shed for all so that sins are forgiven.  Today we have dozens of laundry products specially designed to remove stains.  Blood and wine are always first on the list of difficult stains to remove.   It is a startling idea that the blood of Jesus should not stain us and ruin us, but instead washes us clean of sin, removes all guilt and eliminates the need for punishment, allowing us to live eternally with God.

Our Psalm speaks of the “cup of salvation”. This Psalm could have been written by a contemporary Christian poet.  We take up the communion cup of salvation, calling on the name of the Lord, who has freed us from evil, selfishness and sin.  We remember our vows to God.  In order to give thanks to God, we must sacrifice our overinflated egos and all our “dead works”, as our 2nd reading calls our behaviors such as attempting to reduce God to an hour on Sunday.

So, like the early Christians, we experience the Body and Blood of Christ in the Mass as a sacrament, meaning an effective sign of grace, which works to give us divine life through the Holy Spirit. How did that look just after the first Pentecost? Well, in Acts 2:42 we find that (Christians) “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.”  The identity of Christians, then, was formed in unity, unity in belief and charity, both of which were founded in Eucharist, centered in thanksgiving for the gifts of Christ’s body and blood.

Some twenty years after Pentecost, The Church in Antioch left us a manual of liturgical prayers which we call the “Didache”, Greek for teaching.  In about the year 100, Pope Clement wrote a letter to the church at Corinth, saying, “Holy, Holy, Holy Lord, God of power and might!” Ignatius of Antioch wrote to the church to “Confess the Eucharist to be the flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ.”  In about the 150’s Justin Martyr wrote a detailed description of the Mass as it was celebrated in Rome.  We have historical evidence of the Mass in letters & prayers.

What was the impact of this Mass on the early church? The church had a growth rate estimated at 40% per decade, and by the middle of the 4th century, there were 33 million Christians in an Empire of 60 million people.  The Church Fathers quoted Malachi 1:11, “From the rising of the sun to its setting, my name is great among the nations, and in every place incense is offered to my name, with a pure offering” –  as to say that always and everywhere in the Empire, the Mass was offered.

By then the Mass was called, “the Breaking of the Bread”, “the (once-for-all) Sacrifice”, “the Liturgy”, “the Mysteries”, “the Table of the Lord”, “the Lord’s Supper”, “the Altar”, and “the Communion.” But “the Eucharist” won out, because it was the Greek word for giving thanks, and Mark 14:23, Matthew 26:27, Luke 22:17, and 1 Corinthians 11:24 all used that word. Although great care was taken to keep the liturgy within Christian tradition, the spread of the Gospel from place to place included new and local ways to express worship, but the Words of Institution as found in 1 Corinthians 11 were kept intact. (“On the night when he was betrayed, he took bread and when he had given thanks; he broke it, and said, ‘This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me…” Likewise the cup..)

We keep these words because Jesus commanded us to do so at a most solemn moment anticipating his death. St. Paul emphasized that this action is at the center of the church.  The cup “is the new covenant in my blood.”  Thus, all the subsequent generations have meticulously preserved the Lord’s words and actions as precious and divine.  The many ways that the Christian liturgy shares the prayers of our Jewish brothers and sisters is a fascinating study all by itself.

For early Christians, Mass was the meeting of heaven and earth. But the Mass was also preached as the unifying power of the church.  “Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread” (1Cor 10:17).  Ignatius wrote, “For there is one flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ, and one cup to show forth the unity of His blood.”  Great reverence and care were taken with the elements, which were regarded as more precious than gold or jewels.  Likewise, clergy were to give careful attention to the worlds of the liturgy, and great emphasis was placed on John 6:51, “I am the living bread which came down from heaven; if any one eats of this bread, they will live for ever; and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh.”

Finally, the disciples on the road to Emmaus did not recognize Christ when he opened the Scriptures for them, but rather in the breaking of the bread. In the same way, many millions of people have come to know Jesus after he ascended to heaven.  It reminds me of a quote from Pope Benedict XVI – “Evangelization is…the opening of the heart…(we are) agents of the Holy Spirit helping people have a profound experience of Jesus’ love…a love that opens them to the Word of God and the sacraments…”

We have here a sacrament of depth beyond our imaging, a sacrament which has roots in the earliest moments of creation. We have a liturgy for this sacrament which opens the hearts of people to God with the same power that it did centuries ago.  We have words and actions which we share with those who have gone before us and which we are responsible for passing on to those who come after us.  May the Holy Spirit lead us in this journey, may you find the fullness of God’s mercy and grace, and may Jesus remain in you as you partake from his table.

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Another View of Easter

 

4th Sunday Easter, April 22, 2018

Acts 4:8-12;  Psalm 118;  1 John 3: 1-2;  John 10: 11-18

 

Today, we look again at Easter, starting with the Gospel of John. John inserted teaching dialogues by Jesus between some of the action scenes. The teaching we read is about Jesus’ coming death in terms of “The Good Shepherd”, which then leads into Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. John, you see, identifies the raising of Lazarus as the turning point when the High Priests began to plot to kill Jesus. These scenes flow together to build up to the crucifixion. We are doing exactly what the disciples did after Easter –looking back at what Jesus taught, and discovering new meaning in the light of the Resurrection.

Here are the key Gospel verses: “A good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. I am the good shepherd and I will lay down my life for the sheep. This is why the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down on my own.”

Background: Palestine is at the intersection of Asia, Europe and Africa, so there are many large wild predators – Persian Lions, Cheetahs, Lynx, and leopards. A shepherd would have good reason to protect himself, to allow these fierce cats to take a sheep, and not try to intervene. The people understood the grave danger of being a shepherd. In this passage, Jesus repeats his promise to lay down his life for the sheep 3 times; making a sacred oath that he will give his life for us.

Notice that Jesus does not put limitations on this oath. It’s not, “if” the sheep is well behaved or “if” it is obedient. In fact, there are no “If” clauses in the promise. We are given this loving protection without reservation. Those listening to Jesus, not realizing he was talking about people, found this promise extravagant and unnatural.

Our 1st reading is a continuation from the Book of Acts we have been reading since Easter. Acts is a thriller; it is high drama, with conflict and death. It is a coming of age story for the disciples. It is an exciting history of the early church. It is a self improvement book, a great stand-alone read.

Anyway, today we read the 3rd of Peter’s sermons. The 1st was at Pentecost, the 2nd was when Peter healed a man crippled from birth and was arrested for healing him. This 3rd sermon is Peter responding to the charges of the High Priests the following day. You immediately notice how bold and articulate Peter is. He is no longer the rough fisherman who denied Christ on Good Friday and fearfully hid in the locked room on Saturday. He is “Peter infused with the Holy Spirit” now.

Peter starts by telling the High Priests that the cripple was healed in the Name of Jesus (get that – merely the name has power to heal), AND that Jesus has risen from the dead. That blast of information is enough to knock the High Priests off their feet. Then Peter quotes Scripture, just as Jesus would have.

He bases his argument in Psalm 118, which shows the High Priests that they have made a terrible error in judgment. They have rejected the very person and the salvation promised in yet another promise, by God, long ago in a Psalm of King David. Jesus is the very cornerstone, the support piece on which rests our salvation. Jesus is the “promised one”. Our lectionary does not include the Priests’ response; you can read it on your own.

But our lectionary does give us part of Psalm 118. If you were a youth group, I would have scripts with your parts identified by speaker so that you could act this out. It is a beautiful piece of ancient liturgy; this is dramatic liturgy at its best, with speaking parts for the priests, the people and the king. It was written for the occasion of a great victory, a celebration which proclaimed God as their strength in danger. Each speaker proclaims God’s mercy, and there is testimony of how God saved them from what seemed to be certain death. They were surrounded on every side in battle – the “enemy encompassed me like bees”, the King says. “They flared up like fire among thorns. I was hard pressed and was falling, but the Lord helped me.” Who has not felt like that at some time in their life?   Who has never felt overwhelmed and that their problems were greater than their strength?

But the Lord makes the tiny and weak victorious over evil and death, just as the Lord had brought tiny Israel, overwhelmed by larger and greater forces, to military victory. At that time, Israel thought it was the rejected stone. But now we understand the one who was rejected as Jesus.   And Jesus has become the anchoring base for our lives, our church, and our world. “This,” the king in the Psalm announced, “is the day the Lord has made,” using the same expression we use to announce Easter. The priests respond to the king with a blessing: “Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good.” We make church relevant when we see and celebrate the movement of God in our own lives, here and today in our liturgy.

So Jesus has told us that we are of great value to him, so much so that he will suffer and die for us. Realizing that Jesus is alive, Peter is filled with the Spirit of God, boldly preaching that Jesus loves us and protects us from evil. Peter confidently places his own life and well-being in Jesus’ hands. And the Psalm assures us that God has loved and protected believers from long ago. These readings give us another viewpoint of the meaning of this Easter Season and why we celebrate it with such great joy.

Looking for Joy

4th Sun Lent 3-11-18

2 Chronicles 36:14-16; 19-23 Ps: 137:1- 6; Ephesians 2:4-10; John 3:14-21

 

I struggled for days with this ….I wrote at least 3 different homilies…all of which ended in the recycle bin. Be glad!  Then I had an altogether brilliant idea.

Actually, it wasn’t the idea that was so brilliant. It was the color of these vestments that was brilliant.  Whew!  Rose with a glow! What is the point of this rose?  This happens twice a year, once during Advent and once during Lent.  It is the half way mark in those liturgical seasons.  It is when the mood lightens at little.  It is Joy breaking through the somber tone of the waiting in Advent, breaking through the examination of our lives and our faith in Lent.  But why joy??   The “why” of the joy never sticks in my brain quite as well as “the what”.

So we look for joy in the readings. The first reading is about how the people of Judah lost their faith and ended up captives in Babylon.  Nothing so joyful there (but they do finally return home).  The Psalm is a lament, a song of loss and regret, grieving for the city of Jerusalem, which has been destroyed. No joy there.

Ah, but we have the 2nd reading, from St. Paul, who was writing the Good News of the Resurrection to people in the city of Ephesus.  They were hearing this for the first time!  Perhaps, just perhaps, we could put ourselves in that frame of mind, and see if we can find the joy there that seems to elude us.

So, what does Paul say? First thing is that God is rich in mercy.  Mercy, as we talked about 2 weeks ago, is when God does not give us what we deserve.  We sin, we fail, we do what we know we shouldn’t do, we don’t do what we know we should do, and still God is not ready to pounce on us with punishment.  Why not?  Because, Paul writes, God has “great love” for us.  Everyone benefits from that great love.  Being loved is what the human spirit needs more than any material thing.  In fact, God loves us – greatly – even as we are in the middle of the worse moment of our lives, when we are behaving really badly.

Paul says that at that moment, when we had our backs turned on God, God saved us. God rescued us from ourselves and raised us up and seated us in the heavens with Christ Jesus, so very much more than we might dare to expect or even hope for.  Paul calls this “grace”.  Grace is when God gives us what we do not deserve.  God’s plan is to show us the immeasurable riches of grace.

Now, that is amazing…and pretty joyful the more you think about it. I know of no one who finds a child or employee or student who are behaving at their very worst, knowingly being disobedient or disrespectful, and then takes them off to a place filled with joy and showers them with love.  The joy-filled riches of grace are beyond counting, but they are not locked up in a bank, and never tarnish or lose their value.

If fact, God is ready to give us what no human really deserves, and that is to be with God for ever, face to face in real, pure love and joy. Paul makes it clear; we are saved by grace from punishment.  We cannot earn enough bonus points on our credit cards to get a trip to eternity with God.  Paul says it two different ways to make sure we get it: first, “By grace you have been saved through faith,” and second, “It is the gift of God; it is not from our actions or behavior, therefore no one may boast” (no one is better than the others).

Faith without good deeds, of course, is dead, as James wrote in his short letter (read it sometime). Faith is only real and alive in our lives when we are doing the good things that we were created to do.   Paul wrote that God created us for the good works that already are waiting for us to do; we should find meaning and discover our very lives in doing good things.  Grace seems to bring about this desire to act out in love.

People want joy, but they look in all the wrong places. Paul tells us the right place to look.  We find joy when we believe God.  Some people confuse joy with happiness or good circumstances.  But, joy is a gift from God, and not dependent on where you live or beauty or strength or even good health.  Joy is the result of accepting the “great love” of God. We wrap God’s love around us, we feel it, we deeply breath it in, we cling to it when we have nothing else.

Our Gospel reading backs Paul up. It also says that God did not send his Son into the world to condemn or punish us, but that we might be saved through him; and whoever lives in God’s love and joy comes to the light that their good works may be clearly seen as done through God.

So we continue on toward Easter. Ahead is the difficult half of Lent – facing the cruelty and selfishness that sometimes enters the human soul.  We have to admit how low our price is for betrayal, how quickly we let fear overcome us, how we use others for a small moment of gain.  But joy is an act of rebellion against the darkness, and so, for today, we focus on the joy of the triumph of the cross, and the power of love to overcome even death.

The Long and Short of Mark 1

6th Sunday in Ordinary time, 2-11-18

Lev 13:1-2, 44-46; Ps: 32:1-2, 5, 11; 1 Cor 10:31-11:1; Mark 1:40-45

This is the last Sunday before the start of Lent. For the last three weeks, we have had sequential readings from the Gospel of Mark.  In fact, we have read nearly all of Chapter 1.  Mark has given us a great deal of information about Jesus, the purpose and style of his mission, his unique authority to teach and heal, and his intensity and power.  Today, I want to recap these readings, because I believe they are an excellent entry into Lent as well as a very solid base for expanding the ministry of Holy Trinity.

The first 14 verses of Mark tell us about the baptism of Jesus and his time of temptation in the desert. Jesus’ first words recorded by Mark are, “The time is fulfilled, and the Kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the gospel.” You will remember that when the ashes are placed on your forehead on Ash Wednesday,  one or both of these things are said, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return,” or “Repent, and believe in the Gospel.”  (Now we know where that came from.) The second one is not as familiar, maybe because it seems a little vague; we may not be sure what is being asked of us.

If someone calls you and says, “I have good news – our baby boy was born this morning,” you understand that not only is the message good news, but the baby himself is good news. The Jews had waited about 1,000 years for the arrival of the Messiah.  Now, Mark tells us, the Messiah, Jesus, is teaching and healing and present with his people.  Not only do we find the announcement good, but Jesus’ message is good news, as is his very self.  “Gos” means good and “Spel” means story, or news.   Jesus, and all he says and does, is the gospel.   We are to repent and shed our sin along with shedding the attitude of waiting.

Jesus acts this out by calling Simon, Andrew, James and John from their fishing nets, and “immediately” they leave their boats and go with him.   For them to do that was very counter-cultural, even disrespectful of their family, and, frankly, just plan weird, even for us.  When is that last time you put down your pen on your desk and walked away from your job?  Can you imagine the power in Jesus’ command to, “Come with me”?  Have you ever felt anything like that?  Has God ever put that kind of message in your heart?  What would you do to enliven and built up Holy Trinity if that happened to you?

And then, Jesus, along with his followers, went to the synagogue. Jesus teaches there, “as one having authority”…and not just as a scribe, or scholar.  He commands an unclean spirit to leave a man, and it does.  Everyone is astonished and amazed.  Interesting, isn’t it – the unclean spirits know and obey Jesus in an instant, and we, well, often not so much.  Is it because we haven’t grasped what he asks us to do?  Or do we not know him well enough?

Jesus is then on his way to Simon/Peter’s house the same day. He restores Peter’s mother in-law to health; not only health, but a position of dignity and even fame.  As a widow in declining health, she is a burden on the family and is fearful for the future.  Jesus (immediately) “helpers her up”, says Mark.  What an understatement!

She is able to be a hostess who exceeds the high bar of Mediterranean hospitality. The house becomes the site of all kinds of healings, and her own healing will be known as long as the Bible is read.  Her life had been changed, forever different.  Do you doubt that Jesus could change Holy Trinity into a thriving place of worship and impact the community?

Next, Jesus touches a leper and says, “Be made clean.” This story is full of implications. First, the story came to us in Greek, and Greek uses verbs in ways that we don’t.  In this case, “Be made clean” means, “Someone else will make you clean.”  In other words, God is doing the healing.  Jesus is not claiming this power as his own, just as he does not offer to heal the widow, but helps her move away from the sick bed.  It is a great portrayal of Jesus as the obedient and humble son acting as the conduit of God’s power.  We can be the conduit of God’s power, which is often found in humble prayer, worship, and obedience.

Second, just as “a cold” can mean many possible illnesses, a “leper” in that day could have many different skin conditions. But they all had one thing in common: the person had ugly sores on their body.  Any type of physical disfiguration was suspect then, and made the person “ritually unclean”.  No animal with any physical imperfections could be used for sacrifice in the temple.  Likewise, no person with sores could worship in the temple.  To add insult to injury, the cause of illness was presumed to be sin. The person was blamed for their own illness, and they were viewed as moral pollution in the community.

Because it was seen as a “sin” issue, the Priest banished lepers and declared them healed. The isolation and blame could be worse than the sores.  This leper somehow knows and believes in Jesus.  Jesus, evidently, was a cafeteria Jew, because he followed the Jewish law in Leviticus and sent the leper to the priest; but he touched the leper in pity, thereby breaking another law as he restored the man to wholeness.  Jesus put himself at risk of being mobbed by suffering people in hopes of healing.  He told the leper to be silent, not wanting a reputation as a miracle man/ wonder worker.  Remember, he came to urge repentance and belief.  He knew his goal.  What is our goal, here in this parish?

So, to be like Jesus, we must be short on presumption and long on pity. We must be dependent on God’s power and know it.  We must use God’s eyes to see past the sores on skin and see the sores of the heart.  We must focus on our goal and honor the directives of God, not culture.  With prayerful discernment we must be prepared to act for the glory of God when we are called.  Old presumptions may require repentance, and belief may need to be strengthened.  Our path forward as a church may bring us change, but we can trust it will be “Good News”.

Choosing Who Sits Next to Me

 3rd Sunday of  Ordinary  time, January 21, 2018

Jonah 3:1-5, 10; Psalm: 25:4-9; 1 Corinthians 7:29-31; Mark 1:14-20

So let’s start with 2 questions this morning. Who here has ever suffered through a homily that claimed Jonah was a true story?  Given that our Gospel is about Jesus calling apostles, who has been taught the primary topic of our 1st reading is about the call of Jonah as a prophet and how important it is to be obedient to God’s call?

Jonah is a kind of fable; it is like Aesop’s fables in the way it uses fish and cattle to add some humor to it. It’s also like Jesus’ parables, since it is a short story that has a twist in it that we might not see coming. Nineveh was the capital of Assyria (not to be confused with Syria), the most ruthless and feared nation in the Middle East at the time.  The Assyrians destroyed Israel in 721 BC.  They conquered through particularly brutal military tactics, including wholesale slaughter, and are remembered as the first people to attempt to rule the entire world.  That sheds some light on why Jonah was particularly unwilling for this mission.  He likely figured his probability of being tortured and killed upon entering Ninevah about 110%.  Besides, the Assyrians were deeply hated mortal enemies of the Israelites, not people he wanted to sit next to.   God wants to save their souls?  Jonah can’t possibly see this mission as worth his life.

So when God called him, he understandably ran to find the first boat sailing in the opposite direction. Even the sailors, who worshiped idols and nature-type gods, understood Jonah’s God better than Jonah did. It is telling that in his prayer for God’s help, he says, “Those who worship vain idols forsake their source of mercy, but I, with resounding praise, will sacrifice to you, Lord.”   In fact, the sailors found mercy by throwing Jonah into the sea, while vain Jonah neither praised God nor was willing to sacrifice much of anything. The mood is set when the whale “spews Jonah up the shore;” even the whale wants nothing to do with him.

So God tells Jonah, for a 2nd time, to announce the message that God will give him.  God has to give Jonah a script of the message of repentance to read, since Jonah has clearly no desire to save the Assyrians, no interest in sharing the Word of God with them, and no love for them as neighbors. But, wonder of wonders, they repent.  And God forgave them, and decided not to destroy the city.  Jonah was livid with anger and told God off.  “Isn’t this what I told you,” Jonah screamed, “I ran away because I knew you would forgive these scumbags.  Take my life, I can’t endure this.”  He simply couldn’t accept that the Assyrians had destroyed his homeland and killed so many innocent people without a thought, yet God would forgive them because they repented.

There is still more history behind this hatred. Israel had lapsed into worshiping idols again before the Assyrians overran their county.  The prophet Amos had warned the Israelites that unless they repented, God would not protect them and they would be taken captive.  Amos had a very personal way of explaining it to them: God can’t dwell with you any more than a man can maintain a true marriage with his wife who commits adultery.  Still, the Israelites reasoned, weren’t the Israelites God’s Chosen People?  Didn’t God love only them?  Didn’t God at least have to protect them because they had the Temple, the priesthood, the Ark?

So, after Ninevah prayed for mercy and did acts of penance – the King, all the people, even the cattle and the sheep wore sackcloth to express their grief – Jonah still sat and waited for God to come to his senses and destroy the city of Nineveh.  At first, God had a large plant grow up around Jonah to protect him from the sun.  The next day, as an object lesson, God had a worm destroy the plant, and Jonah became faint from the heat, and he told God he was so angry about the plant dying that he was angry enough to die.  God’s response is this: “You pity the plant, although you did nothing to grow it and only had it for one day. Then should I not pity a great city of 120,000 people, and their cattle, which didn’t know any better?”  One part of the lesson is: God’s mercy and love are not only for all people, but all of his creation.

.Jonah was so absorbed in his self-righteousness and pity, he was not longer rational. How did Jonah get so confused?  That is the other and primary point of this story.  Not quite 100 years after the Assyrian invasion of Israel, the Babylonians invaded, and leveled the country, again, taking most of the people captive, again, for some 40 years.  The people left behind were the poor and marginalized, who then intermarried with other tribes in the area.  These became the people called the “Samaritans.”  (Note: the Babylonians also leveled Nineveh.)

When the Israelites were released to return from captivity, under the leadership of Ezra and Nehemiah, a strong and narrow-minded Jewish nationalism developed. People were required to prove by lineage that they were “pure” Jews, and those with mixed lineage, like the Samaritans, were barred from participating in government or religious life.  Prior to this, a person could become an Israelite by marriage or coming to live and participate in the community.  But by the 4th Century BC, Israel had closed in on itself, no longer sharing their faith.  This story is a call for Israel to repent, and to preach and practice God’s mercy and forgiveness.  By putting a mirror up in front of the people, the writer hopes to show them the folly of their faults and bring them to repentance for their sins of exclusivity and hatred.

Jonah is a 4th Century BC teaching story with lots of implications for today’s world.  It is the story of love and gentleness as the one successful response to hatred.   It is a lesson of the faithfulness of God and how faithfulness is required from us to be able to walk with God in right relationship.  It is about when nationalism goes far beyond civic pride and falls into unwarranted presumption of privilege, particularly privilege which degrades others.

Every day is “the time of fulfillment, the Kingdom of God is at hand”, Jesus told us.  We also need to stop and repent of those sins we only recognize when we see them in others.   One of the reasons Jesus was surrounded by disciples was to give us people to relate to.  We can better hear Jesus’ teachings by identifying with the disciples mistakes.

And that means we all need to become increasingly aware of not only what we do but what we do not do.   I see pictures of refugee camps and starving children daily, yet I live very comfortably.  What I do not do speaks very loudly to me.  Do I think I am more valuable than a child dying of starvation and cholera in Yemen?  Does God find people in one nation innately more loveable than elsewhere?  Being God’s chosen people brings greater responsibility, not greater privilege.  Just a few blocks from us, around Coates Elementary School, live a lot of people who God chooses, too.  Perhaps they should be here, sitting next to us?

Justice and Jealousy

25th Sunday Ordinary time, 9-24-17: Isaiah 55:6-9; Psalm: 144: 2-3, 8-9, 17-18; Philippians 1:20c-24, 27a; Matthew 20:1-16a

Justice and Jealousy

Our Lectionary has been playing tricks on us. Last week we read from Chapter 18 of Matthew’s Gospel, and now today we have leaped ahead to Chapter 20. Unfortunately, the part we skipped explains why Jesus tells us today’s parable!

But we have some clues. The first reading from Isaiah says, “My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.”  Likewise the Psalm says, “The Lord is gracious and merciful… the Lord is good to all and compassionate toward all his works.  The Lord is just in all his ways and holy in all his works.” Also in our Gospel, Jesus begins by saying, “The Kingdom of heaven is like a landowner…”  Most of the “kingdom” parables use ordinary events and ordinary people to show us that God’s kingdom is NOT ordinary!

So let’s leap back to chapter 19 and find the disciples trying to keep children away from Jesus, but he declares, “The kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” Such as who?  The humble, the powerless, the ones with no “purchasing power”.  Then the rich young man comes and asks Jesus what he must do to gain eternal life. He is told to give away his riches and come with Jesus.  Then there is the infamous Camel and the eye of the needle teaching.  Jesus says it is hard for one who is rich to enter the kingdom of God; but for God, all things are possible.  Many people have struggled with that one!  But doesn’t God offer grace and mercy to ALL people?

Next, Peter asks what reward the apostles will receive for leaving everything and following Jesus. Then Jesus tells this parable of “The Workers in the Vineyard.”  Afterwards, John and James’ mother asks for her sons to be seated at Jesus’ right and left in the kingdom. (She was apparently too busy preparing her request to listen to the parable.)  This results in Jesus teaching about the reversal of kingdom values; those who follow Jesus are to be servants.  The underlying message this entire section of Matthew’s Gospel is that kingdom values are the opposite of this world’s values.  More specifically, the parable is directed against envy, greed, boasting, or any kind of ranking among Jesus’ followers.   Said another way, the last sentence of the reading – the first shall be last and the last shall be first – indicates that human perceptions on ranking are without meaning and will be turned upside down in the kingdom.

On to the parable! Our parable has 4 parts. First, the landowner goes out five times and hires workers.  Second, the landowner pays the workers.  Third, we hear the complaint of unjust wages.  Fourth, we hear the defense of goodness (someone is confused if we must defend goodness). God is the landowner; the workers are the disciples – and all of us. Most humans have at least occasional bouts of bad attitude, envy, desire for special treatment and rewards, which mark them as “above the crowd”.

The apostles, for example, are put out to give mere children access to Jesus, when their unrestricted access to the Famous Teacher marks them as unique. The rich young ruler is unwilling to give up his wealth, which marks him as a person of status and privilege.  Peter wants to make sure that there will be compensation for leaving the comforts of home and his life as a seafood entrepreneur.  Finally, John and James’ mother probably had high hopes for her offspring, and needed to ensure this gig with a wandering rabbi would lead to the rank that was due to such outstanding sons.  Surely God would recognize their superiority!  (She should meet my grandkids.) Someplace here we each find the reasons we buy lottery tickets, enter Publisher’s Clearinghouse contest, and do all the crazy other things we do to “get ahead (of others).”  But while this parable is about the goodness of God, it is not contrasting works and grace, or achievement levels, and is not about God’s extreme generosity.  All the workers receive the usual daily wage, although some worked longer.  But the wage is “the usual”, it is not generous – barely enough for food for the day – and the landowner is, if anything, charitable rather than generous, just trying to see that all have something to eat.

The parable does show that God’s treatment /judgment of people isn’t based on human rankings or human standards of justice. What causes the workers hired first to complain is the comparison of their hourly wages with that of the later hires.  In their eyes, justice is that which gives no one else an advantage; they define justice from a self-centered point of view. Do we define injustice as what happens to our disadvantage, and what is right as what happens to our advantage?  The first hired workers complain, of course, because they are jealous.  Jesus told the rich young ruler, “If you wish to be perfect… sell what you have and give to the poor, then you will have treasure in heaven.  Then come, follow me.”  Is giving to the poor one sign of God’s goodness?

For Jesus, to talk about reward is a way to talk about what pleases God and assure us that following Christ is not fruitless. Clearly, this parable is not theology about reward. In contrast, the disciples were into calculating reward and seeking privilege.  The workers who were hired first thought they would receive more….in comparison to others.  The parable breaks through our ideas of reward and perceptions of what is “right”.  Besides, this parable is not about human effort and salvation.  Rather, just as no one should begrudge a good man who gives to the poor, so no one should begrudge God’s goodness and mercy as if God’s rewards were limited to strict calculation.  Envy and displeasure at someone else’s success is contrary to the kingdom.  Jealousy and all thoughts of ranking or privilege must be jettisoned.

“Justice is enormously important…but it should be redefined…too often we dress up as justice what is in reality jealousy, or use justice as a weapon to limit generosity. It certainly is not to be defined by self-centered interests, but requires positive action seeking the good for all persons, especially the needy.  True justice… seeks mercy and ways to express love.  If the parable is about the goodness of God, then it asks that we give up envy and calculation of reward and, rather, both embrace and imitate God’s goodness.  That means that we give up the quest to be first, knowing that God’s standards are different, that what appears to be first will be last.”*

Stories with Intent, A comprehensive Guide to the Parables of Jesus, by Klyne R. Snodgrass, 2008, Eerdmans Publishing Company, pgs 378-379.  This quote and many of the ideas found here are from this excellent book.

Four Steps of Attitude Adjustment

22nd Sun Ord time, 9-3-17

Jeremiah 20:7-9; Psalm: 63:2-9; Romans 12:1-2; Matthew 16:21-27

Our readings today could easily be titled: The Four Steps of Attitude Adjustment. Let me explain what I mean.  We start with The Prophet Jeremiah in our first reading.  This is step one. Like most of us when we are compelled to do something we don’t want to do, Jeremiah is whining.  He blames God; he says he was “duped”/ “seduced”/ “misled”.  Jeremiah wants God to know that he is doing this job as a prophet against his will.  He is frightened by the threats made against him.  He is tired of being ridiculed.  He himself thinks the message God has given him to share with the people is a message of violence; he is disguised with himself for delivering the message.

So why does he continue to be a prophet for God? Jeremiah has tried to stop.  He promised himself he would stop.  But then the message “becomes like a fire burning in my heart”; he says he cannot hold the words in, he feels weak and out of control. The way Jeremiah describes his situation is almost like compulsive behavior or addiction; he is full of negativity and resistance.

The next situation, step two, starts off well. We look at is the apostle Simon Peter in the Gospel.  Peter has just been given the name of “Peter”, or the solid, stone foundation for the Church.  Peter is given the keys to heaven, and great authority; it seems impressive.  But then, in just a few moments, it goes from ideal to awful.  Jesus begins to talk about suffering and being killed.  What had sounded glorious has turned grisly.

Peter is so full of himself that he tries to set Jesus straight; he says Jesus is wrong, mistaken.  Surely the Son of God will not allow himself to be victimized by the chief priests, of all people! Peter had been thinking that he was strong enough to stand in his own power, but that illusion is swept away.  Jesus calls him the Devil.  Ouch!!  Jesus persists, saying that Peter must expect to take up his cross!!  Had Peter signed up for crucifixion??  He would lose his life? OMG!

Step 3 starts off badly, with our Psalmist saying, “my flesh pines and my soul thirsts like the earth, parched, lifeless and without water.” He clearly is not in control of his situation, either.  He sounds like a guy in real trouble.  But he is actually seeking greater power than himself.  Suddenly it changes; everything changes.  He looks into the temple and sees a vision of the power and glory of God.  He sees kindness so intense it is a greater good than life itself.

Praise for God comes out of his mouth without thinking – he blesses God, lifts up his hands in worship and calls out for God.  He is no longer hungry or thirsty – he feels as if he is at the richest and most abundant of banquets, where every possible desire for food and drink will be satisfied.  He feels sheltered; he clings to God as a steady and reliable force for his life and is filled with joy.

Finally, we read from St. Paul, who has already suffered a stoning and beatings for teaching the Good News of Jesus.  He does not even consider his own strength or power.  He offers instead the “mercies of God.”  He tells us the attitude of success is one of offering our self to God, like a living sacrifice, and offering worship to God.  Paul adds that we do not need to behave like the people around us, but rather our attitude needs to tune into God, changing and renewing us, enabling us to know the will of God.  Then we will understand what really is good and pleasing to God.  Instead of trying to control a situation, or bend a situation to our desires and benefit, we should choose to be molded into a new direction, a different understanding, where we can begin to understand how to be loving and just and true.

RECAP

Jeremiah wanted life to be easy and pleasant. He just wants to fit in, have some buddies, and go with the flow. He is very conflicted; God is cramping his style.

Peter is a good man. Power and authority also sound good to him, but only if he’s on the winning side.  He loves Jesus; but he’s hoping for maybe a little upward mobility?  He wants God to defeat the Roman army and take charge.

Next our Psalm writer is looking for God, even in the midst of thirst and hunger. He goes to the temple, and finds a spirit of glory and kindness.  Without one bite of food, he feels filled and satisfied.  Without any power of his own, he feels safe and joyful with God.

Last is Paul, who can open himself fully to God’s plan, and wants to conform to God’s ways; he is ready, and urges us, to commit – body, soul, and mind.

This is not a process that necessarily comes from intelligence, maturity, experience or background.  It is not a program where you just follow 4 easy steps. It is a gift of the Spirit which we can choose to nurture and follow.  For each person, the path is unique; ironically blissful and demanding at the same time.  Yes, the retirement plan is outstanding, but living the Godly life is unexpectedly and deeply rewarding.

My friends, keep up the good work.