The Guest at the Banquet

Matthew 22:1-14

Once 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.  3 He sent his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding banquet, but they would not come.  Again 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.’  5 But they made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business,  6 while the rest seized his slaves, mistreated them, and killed them.  7 The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city.  8 Then he said to his slaves, ‘The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy.  9 Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.’  10 Those 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,  12 and he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?’ And he was speechless.  13 Then 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.’  14 For many are called, but few are chosen.”

Fredrich Wilhelm I, king of Prussia in the early 18th century, had a hot temper and a short fuse.  He often would walk unattended through the streets of Berlin and if people saw him coming they would do their best to make themselves scarce, because if anyone displeased him for even the slightest of reasons he wouldn’t hesitate to thrash them with his walking stick.  One day an unlucky man who didn’t see him coming in time attempted to slide into a doorway to avoid the cantankerous king but his efforts were in vain.

“You,” called Fredrich Wilhelm, “where are you going?”

“Into the house, Your Majesty,” replied the nervous man.

“Into the house?  Your house?” asked the king.

“No,” replied the poor man.

“Why are you entering it, then?” asked Fredrich Wilhelm.

The unfortunate man, afraid he might be accused of burglary, decided to tell the truth.  “In order to avoid you, Your Majesty.”

Fredrich Wilhelm scowled. “To avoid me?  Why would you want to avoid me?”

“Because I fear you, Your Majesty.”

King Fredrich turned purple with rage and began to beat the poor man’s shoulders with his walking stick as he shouted, “You’re not supposed to fear me!  You’re supposed to love me!  Love me, you scum!  Love me!”

Do we sometimes see God as being like Fredrich Wilhelm—hot tempered with a short fuse, ready to punish for infractions large and small?

I thought about that as I read the parable in this week’s gospel lesson and how we have traditionally interpreted it.

I need to say before I go any further that this parable of the wedding banquet in Matthew is one of the most challenging, if not the most challenging for preachers and scholars.  Just about any way you approach it you will find problems and loose ends—pieces that just don’t fit.  No less a scholar than David Lose said, “This parable seems just plain nasty. Not so much because it’s difficult to interpret – it is to some degree – though mostly, I think, because we don’t like what it says—but rather because of the indiscriminate violence in the passage.  What are we to make of it?”[1]

As with so many of Jesus’ parables, we have traditionally interpreted this story of the wedding banquet as an allegory and assigned identities to the characters. 

In most of these interpretations, the king who gives the banquet represents God and the bridegroom/son represents Jesus.  

In one traditional interpretation, the original invited guests who turn down the invitation represent the people of Israel, and the people brought in off the streets represent the gentiles who are brought into the feast when Israel turns down the invitation.  

In one historical interpretation, the invited guests who refuse to come represent the Pharisees and the street people who take their place represent the new Christian community, those people first hearing and reading Matthew’s gospel.

There is another interpretation, David Lose calls it the “Lutheran” interpretation, which doesn’t dwell on those who decline the invitation or the street people who take their place at the table.  This interpretation focuses, instead, on the gracious generosity of the king who issues the invitation in the first place, first to the chosen, then in opening it up to “everyone they found.” 

In all these interpretations, the wedding robe is understood to be God’s grace which clothes us in imputed righteousness.  The guest who is thrown out into the outer darkness for failing to wear a wedding robe is understood to represent someone who refuses to accept God’s grace in Jesus Christ.

That’s pretty much how I’ve always heard this parable preached or taught.  These interpretations works well enough up to a point, but they’re not without their problems.  So let’s look at some of those problems, the things we gloss over if we keep hearing this story the same way we’ve always heard it.

Let’s start with the son, the guest of honor at the banquet.  If this is Jesus, in this story being told by Jesus, he is oddly passive in this story.  The son does nothing.  He does not deliver the invitation or announcement of the feast.  He does not supply the wedding robes which, in traditional interpretations represent being clothed in grace.  He does not intervene on behalf of the guest being ejected into the outer darkness.  He is utterly and completely passive.  Would Jesus have described himself that way?  Is that how you understand Christ?

What about the idea that those who first receive the invitation represent the people of Israel, the Jews, and the street people who take their place at the banquet are the Gentiles who would later dominate the church?  The people of Israel reject the king’s, God’s, invitation, so God destroys them. On one level, it’s easy to see how this fits. You can interpret the slaves delivering the invitation as the prophets.  You could argue that the destruction of the city is an allusion to the Romans having destroyed Jerusalem.  But remember, the first people reading this account in Matthew were Jewish Christians, probably living in Syria.  There is good evidence that the Gospel of Matthew was originally written in Hebrew.[2]  Even the people hearing this story in the Jewish Christian community of Matthew’s gospel still thought of themselves as Jews, as the people of Israel, but Jews who had received Jesus as their long-awaited Messiah.  Would they be likely to hear this as a story about God’s rejection of Jews and acceptance of Gentiles in their place?  Also, this interpretation leads all too readily to antisemitism—and has historically been used for that purpose.  Would Jesus, a Jew, be likely to tell a story with such a theme even if it wasn’t the main theme?

If we choose an interpretation that focuses primarily on God’s grace, then what do we make of the king’s violence?  If grace is our theme, how do we understand the king ordering one of the guests to be bound hand and foot and thrown into the outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth simply because he didn’t wear a wedding robe, especially since we are given no reason for why he’s not doing so?  And what do we make of that last line—many are called but few are chosen—when it seems like the many are staying at the banquet and the few, the one, really is being chosen for a rough exit?

If we take any of these approaches, we miss something else going on in this parable in Matthew.  There is a very similar story in Luke 14, a story of a great banquet, but it is a much milder story.  The host is a merely a man, not a king.  The invited guests make excuses, but no one is punished for not coming, except that they don’t get to taste the delicacies at the banquet.  No violence.  No wedding robes.  No outer darkness.  But in this story in Matthew those are the things Jesus is using to make a point.  But what, exactly, is the point he is trying to make?

If we look closely we’ll see that there is a lot going on politically in this story.  The host is not just a man, he’s a king.  That means that the invitation to the banquet carries a certain weight.  It is, in fact, a genteel form of command appearance.  The noted English Biblical scholar, Richard Baukham, put it this way:

The attendance of the great men of the kingdom at the wedding feast of the king’s son would be expected not only as a necessary expression of the honor they owe the king but also as an expression of their loyalty to the legitimate succession to his throne. Political allegiance is at stake. Excuses would hardly be acceptable, and the invitees (unlike those in the Lukan parable) offer none. To refuse the invitation is tantamount to rebellion. In refusing it, the invitees are deliberately treating the king’s authority with contempt. They know full well that their behavior will be understood as insurrection. This is what they intend, and those who kill the king’s messengers only make this intention known more emphatically. The king responds as kings do to insurrection (v. 7).[3] 

So… we have a king whose kingdom is in open rebellion.  Why?  In response to his envoys being killed he launches an all-out attack and destroys the rebellious city.  But the feast is all prepared and must go ahead.  He has to save face.  He has to show his political strength and force.  The aristocrats who were invited are out, so he turns populist.  He brings in people off the street.  It’s right out of the Roman playbook–bread and circuses, just like Julius Caesar.  Just like Augustus.  But when he sees one poor schmo who isn’t in formal wear he has him booted.

And now we’re back to Fredrich Wilhelm I.  Capricious.  Thin-skinned. Hot tempered.  Short fused. 

Is that how we see God?  

More importantly, since Jesus is the one telling this story, is that how Jesus saw God?

I don’t think so.

Quoting Jesus from just this Gospel of Matthew, we hear him say, “Your Father in heaven makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.” (5:9).  “Your Father knows what you need before you ask him.” (6:8)  “Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?” (6:26)  “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father.” (10:29)

Does that sound like the king in this parable?  Or is Jesus trying to tell us something else here?   

Is there a way to hear this parable where we hear Good News?  Is there a way to hear this short story by Jesus where we Gentile Christians don’t get a version Good News that’s just cheap grace at someone else’s expense?  As Debi Thomas put it, “— not the mingy Good News that secures my salvation and my comfort at the expense of other people’s bodies and souls — but rather, the Good News of the Gospel that is inclusive, disruptive, radical, and earth-shattering. The Good News that centers on the Jesus I trust and love.  What would it be like to look for Jesus and his Good News in this story?”[4]

What happens if we reassign the roles in our allegory?  

Credit where credit is due.  I am indebted to Debi Thomas for what comes next, an idea which has completely changed the way I see this parable.  In her weekly lectionary essay in Journey with Jesus she wrestled with all the difficulties in this parable and then arrived at a solution unlike any I’ve ever seen or read before.  I’ve shared her essay with several colleagues and we all think she’s on to something.

What if the king represents all the powers that be in this world, the powers that insist we conform to their norms—religion, politics, the boundaries of society—the powers that rise up to crush anything or anyone that steps too far out of line, that rejects and ejects those who don’t wear the garment of conformity?

What if all the people in this parable are just that?  People in their stratified layers.  The aristocrats and wealthy who get the embossed invitations to all that’s good in life and then everybody else—regular people who go about their lives making do but who sometimes get a fabulous break because the original guests are no-shows.

What if Jesus is describing the system as it was, and as it is—the way the world works, with its hierarchies of wealth and levers of power, with its struggles for control and its pressures to create and maintain business as usual?

And then, what if the “God” figure in this parable is the guest without a wedding robe?   What if Jesus is the one who refuses to wear the wedding robe, the garment of conformity?  What if Jesus is making a statement and saying, “I refuse to play along.”

When the king asked “Friend how did you get in here without a wedding robe?” the guest was speechless.  When Jesus stood before Pilate, he was speechless, too.[5]

What if the way to the real celebration was to opt out of the coerced party hosted by the powers that be,  to refuse to wear the clothes of conformity, to let yourself be bound hand and foot and thrown into the outer darkness, just as the way to Christ’s resurrection was through the cross and the tomb, just as the way to eternal life is through death?

What if Jesus is the guest being forcefully ushered out of the party?  What would that mean for us as followers of Jesus?

Would you be willing to take off your robes of privilege, position, power and wealth to follow him into the outer darkness?   Would I?

Many are called.  Few are chosen.

In Jesus’ name.  Amen.


[1] In the Meantime, Pentecost 19, A Limited Vision, David Lose.net

[2] Was the Gospel of Matthew Originally Written in Hebrew?,  George Howard, Bible Review 2:4, Winter 1986

[3] Parable of the Royal Wedding Feast, Richard Baukham; Journal of Biblical Literature, Fall, 1996, p.484

[4] The God Who Isn’t, Debi Thomas, Journey With Jesus, October 11, 2020

[5] Matthew 27:12-14

Turn the World Upside Down

In Acts 17:6, Paul and Silas are brought before the city authorities of Thessalonica with this accusation: “These are the men who are turning the world upside down… They are all acting contrary to the decrees of the emperor, saying that there is another king named Jesus.”

Turning the world upside down.  Getting into “good trouble.” Acting contrary to custom and law.  Claiming that they answer to a higher authority named Jesus.

For a very long time this was a portrait of the Church:  faithful people turning the world upside down, banding together in beloved community to worship and to take care of each other as a sign that God’s love was at work in them in the name of Jesus.  When the empire was cruel, they protested with prayer and patience and, often, by being its victims so that the empire’s cruelty would be on display.  When the empire showed no compassion, they provided the missing safety nets, feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, binding up wounds, caring for the sick even in times of plague.  

In a world that lionized strength, they were led by the Spirit who had said through the Apostle Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.”(1 Cor. 12:9)  In a era driven by wealth, they bowed to the one who had said, “Blessed are you who are poor for yours is the kingdom of God.” (Luke 6:20)  In a world where their faith and fellowship was declared illegal and their ideas branded as subversive, they quietly grew in numbers and strength.

And then something happened.  After three centuries of being illegal, three centuries of subverting the dominant paradigm, three hundred years of quiet protest as the alternative realm within the empire’s domain, three hundred years of living and practicing their faith sometimes quite literally underground, they did, indeed, turn the world upside down. 

The emperor became one of them.  Constantine Augustus became a Christian.

And suddenly priorities changed.  Suddenly it became vitally important to clarify what they believed to make sure that all these churches in all these cities in this vast empire were seeing things the same way, were talking about God the same way, were teaching the same things.  Because now it was the empire’s church.  

The emperor called for a great council to meet.  Bishops came from all corners of the empire.  After intense debate the first Doctrine was established.  A Creed was written.

In a blink of history’s eye, the focus of the Church shifted.  Now the emphasis was more on what people believed and less on what they were doing.  Now the weight was more on what the faithful thought about Jesus and not as much on how they followed him.  

Almost overnight the world had turned the Church upside down.  And while the empire adopted some of the values of the Church, much more did the Church fall in line with the empire.

And so it has been, more or less, for seventeen centuries.  

Now we live in a time of crisis.  As I write this 200,000 persons in our country and more than 980,000 world-wide have died from the Corona virus.  Economic tensions are high. Political tensions are higher, and sociological tensions are higher still.  Empire is unstable within and without.  And the Church…

If you were to judge by what you see in the media, it would look like the Church has faded into invisibility and irrelevance except for a few noisy, high-profile individuals who get all the wrong kinds of attention.  It’s true that membership numbers are shrinking.  It’s true that there are fewer congregations of all denominations.  It might look like the world has turned the Church upside down to such an extent that it’s all spilled out and become empty.

But it would be a mistake to believe that.  I think, if you look closely and in the right places, you’ll see something else happening.  I think what you’ll see is that the Church is being quietly reformed, reshaped and repositioned so it can get back to the business of following Jesus more than just intellectually believing in Jesus.  I think, if you can learn to see it, you’ll see that the Church is being reshaped to proclaim the kin-dom of heaven by showing examples of that kin-dom at work on earth as it is in heaven.

I think, if you look closely, you’ll find followers of Jesus standing firm in the protests against racism.  You’ll find followers of Jesus working to protect voting rights.  You’ll find followers of Jesus feeding the hungry and trying to stop evictions during a time of quarantine.  You’ll find followers of Jesus in the courts trying to overturn wrongful convictions. 

If you look, you’ll find followers of Jesus like Mitch Teemley making movies like Healing River that show us how to heal relationships without getting preachy.  If you listen you’ll find music from followers of Jesus like Carrie Newcomer and poetry and prose from people like Parker Palmer and Ann Lamott who show us how to reach deep into our souls and touch the hearts of others without off-putting piety.  If you look, you’ll find followers of Jesus in every walk of life bringing light into the shadows and healing into the brokenness of the world.

If you look, I think you’ll find that the followers of Jesus are being repositioned so we can get back to doing what we did in the beginning…turning the world upside down.

Pro Gloria Dei,

Pastor Steve

On Being Squirrelly

My dear friend Pastor Brenda Bos filled in for me this morning. As she prepared to consecrate Holy Communion for us, she shared with us this poem from St. Francis:

THE SACRAMENTS

I once spoke to my friend, an old squirrel, about the Sacraments –

he got so excited and ran into a hollow in his tree

and came back holding some acorns,

an owl feather,

and a ribbon he had found.

And I just smiled and said, “Yes, dear, you understand:

everything imparts His grace.”

Distractions

Matthew 21:23-32

    Several days ago I was reading on Facebook a very thought-provoking and insightful post from my dear friend and former bishop.  Somewhere in his message he used the phrase, “dear siblings in Christ.”  We’ve been seeing that wording a lot lately in our denomination as we try to use language that’s more expansive and less gender binary. I get it and I support the idea.  Truly, I do.

But I have a problem.  It’s a personal problem and really kind of silly, but it’s still a problem.  For me.  I don’t like the word siblings.  It has a perfectly fine heritage as English words go, Old Germanic to Saxon to Old English to us, and the meaning couldn’t be clearer.  But I just don’t like the sound of it.   It starts with a snaky sibilant, slides into an apologetic little short vowel, butts up against a half-hearted plosive-lingual combo and drowns itself in a swallowed glottal ending.  You would think a word that intends to speak such rich and varied relationships would, itself, be a bit more robust.

Anyway, I broke away from reading my friend’s Facebook post to compose a post of my own: “FWIW and apropos of nothing:
I really dislike the word sibling. The ending “ling” is diminutive for one thing, and I don’t want to diminish those I am embracing as kin, nor do I want to be diminished. I understand the desire to use something more gender expansive than ‘brothers and sisters,’ but siblings sounds squishy to my ear. So… better word? Or is it just me?”

Forty-seven responses later, many of them having to do with the suffix ‘ling’, my friends and cousins and I had arrived at no consensus regarding the word “siblings,” except that we can’t really think of any other single work that does the job, so we’ll all continue using it.  My cousins, the five sisters who grew up in a family of ten siblings, actually like the word siblings and use it frequently.  Cousin Carla (she’s a retired English teacher) and I had quite the discussion on the etymology of the word…which is the kind of thing that passes for sport in our extended family.

And here’s a curious thing at the end of all this:  I completely lost track of what my dear friend and former bishop was writing about in his piece that used the phrase that had sent me down the siblings rabbit hole.  Can’t remember for the life of me and can’t find his post.  

I remember I had been moved by what I had read up to that point.  I remember thinking that I wanted to sit with his words and the feeling he was expressing.  But I let myself get distracted by the triviality of a single word because it sounds odd to my hearing and its suffix triggers my overly picky sense of meaning.  

I guess I’m hearing impaired in more ways than I realized.

It’s amazing how easily we get distracted from the things that really deserve our attention.

Two days after Jesus had overturned the tables of the moneychangers and driven the vendors and animals out of the temple courts, and followed that by healing people in the temple grounds, Jesus returned to the temple to begin teaching and healing again, knowing that he had precious little time left for this work.  Immediately he was confronted by the Pharisees and Sadducees, the sect in charge of the temple and pretty much everything else in Jerusalem. 

“By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” they asked him.  I don’t think that’s the first question I would have asked.  I think I would have wanted to know why Jesus had made such a ruckus with the vendors and the livestock and the currency exchange.  What’s your thinking there, Jesus?  Then again, if I was wearing their robes and turbans, maybe that’s exactly the question I would have asked: By what authority?  What gives you the authority to come in here and turn our world upside down?  Who gives you that authority?

Their question betrays what they’re trying to protect: their authority.  

Jesus is too smart to accept their kerfuffle invitation, so he says, “Let me ask you a question.  If you tell me the answer, then I’ll tell you by what authority I do what I do.  Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it a strictly human thing?”

And just like that, he had them backed into a corner.  For one thing, that’s exactly the kind of question that would keep Pharisees and Sadducees arguing forever simply because of their different views about heaven and how God works in the world.  But they had an even more practical problem.  “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he’ll say, ‘Well thhen why didn’t you believe him?’  But if we say, ‘It’s a human thing,’ we’ll have to deal with the crowd.  They all think John was a prophet.”  So they answered Jesus, “We don’t know.” So Jesus said to them, “Well then I won’t tell you by what authority I am doing what I do.”

But he doesn’t stop there.  While he has their attention he tells them a cryptic little parable.  I say cryptic because it seems pretty simple and clear on the face of it, but really, there’s a lot more depth than meets the eye.  It’s like a Zen koan.  You need to sit with it awhile.  

“What do you think?,” said Jesus. “A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’  He answered, ‘I don’t feel like it’; but later he changed his mind and went.  The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘Sure, okay’; but he didn’t go.  Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.”

For us to more fully appreciate how the people listening to Jesus were hearing this, it probably helps to understand that the minute they heard the word “vineyard” their ears perked up.  “Vineyard” was the image the prophets and rabbis used to talk about Israel. 

So now they’re listening.  We’re listening.  More carefully.  This is a story about us.  One son says he’ll go work in the vineyard but he doesn’t go.  He sounds obedient but he really isn’t.  The other son says he won’t but then he does.  He sounds disobedient, but in the end he does what he was asked.  Where do we fit in this story?  Where do I fit in this story? 

“Which of the two,” asked Jesus, “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.  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.”

Jesus is trying to get these religious leaders, these good, faithful people, to understand that they’ve missed the point of their religion and their faith. 

But they can’t hear him.  They’re distracted by the question of authority.

The Pharisees are deeply vested in their identity as authorities on the law.  Their piety is admirable but burdensome when they try to make others live by their standards.  The Sadducees are deeply vested in their authority as priests  and managers.  They are immersed in all things political and all the power that comes with the temple.  

Jesus is a threat to them.  Would they still have authority in the kin-dom Jesus is proclaiming?  Would they still have status and stature?  Where would they fit in the hierarchy of such a kin-dom?  Would there even be a hierarchy?

For the Pharisees it was their authority as the teachers and religious practitioners that was at stake.  Who would interpret the law?  

These authorities in the temple are so focused on the question of authority that Jesus has to shock them to really be heard.

“Tax collectors and prostitutes,” he says, “the people you despise most, are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you.”  

Do take note:  he says they will be going into the kingdom of God.  Just not at the front of the line.

So much of what they needed to know about God’s vision for the kin-dom was already there for them in their scriptures, in the words of the Torah and prophets.  So much of what Jesus was teaching and sharing was already in their hands, but they had missed it or forgotten it. Instead of working in the vineyard to realize God’s plan for spreading the wealth and prosperity of the land and administering justice and caring for the poor as it was all laid out in Torah and the prophets, they got distracted by other details.  They got lost in the rabbit hole of protecting their positions in life-as-usual and they missed what John and Jesus had been announcing—that the time had come to live life-as-extraordinary, life as envisioned.  They got lost in words and missed the Word.

I can’t help but think that today, in our country, we find ourselves in a similar situation.  We have in our hands all the wisdom we need to make our nation much more healthy and whole and to heal the divides among our people.  We have the soaring language of the Declaration of Independence to tell us we’re all created equal and endowed with the unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.  We have our Constitution calling us to form a more perfect union, laying out for us a government of checks and balances and guaranteeing specific rights to us as citizens.  We pledge allegiance to a nation with liberty and justice for all.

But we’ve been distracted by protecting our particular interests.  All has not included all.  Party politics has knocked the checks and balances out of check and out of balance.  And when we try to make a more perfect union, some people oppose the effort, believing that things were more perfect in a more segregated and separated past.

In 1962, James Meredith made civil rights history as the first Black student ever to enroll at the University of Mississippi. Immediately the town of Oxford, home of the university, was torn by riots as white people took to the streets in violent protest.  But Meredith didn’t let it intimidate him. Four years later, hoping to inspire Black citizens in the South to vote, James Meredith set out to walk 220 miles from Memphis, Tennessee, to Jackson, Mississippi carrying nothing but a walking stick and a Bible. He wanted  to show that a Black man could walk freely through the South.  “I was at war against fear,” he explained.

On the second day of his walk,  James Meredith was ambushed by Aubrey James Norville, a Memphis hardware clerk, who shot him four times and left him to die in the middle of the road. Incredibly, Meredith survived.

And then an astonishing thing happened. While Meredith was recuperating in the hospital, dozens, then hundreds, then thousands of people began to gather to continue his walk from Memphis to Jackson. On June 26, 1966 a recovered James Meredith entered Mississippi’s state capitol accompanied by 12,000 marchers including Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Stokely Carmichael.

It would have been easy for Meredith to surrender in his war against fear.    But he didn’t let a sniper distract him from walking into Jackson with 12,000 friends.

The events in today’s gospel text took place during what we call Holy Week.  The authorities in the temple didn’t like the way Jesus exercised his authority.  They didn’t like it he wasn’t cowed by their authority.  They didn’t like it that they couldn’t distract him from his mission. They didn’t like it that Jesus was distracting the people from life-as-usual and giving them a vision of life-as-extraordinary.  So they crucified him.  

But crucifying him didn’t stop him and it hasn’t stopped his vision of the kin-dom of God.  And today the living Christ is still calling us to walk with him and behind him to make that kin-dom of peace and justice and equity, that kin-dom of liberty and justice for all a reality, and to spread the news that in God’s eyes we are all…siblings.  

In Jesus’ name.

The Right Thing To Do

Matthew 20:1-16

  “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard.  After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard.  When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace;  and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went.  When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same.  And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, ‘Why are you standing here idle all day?’  They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’  When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.’  When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage.  10 Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage.  11And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner,  12 saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’  13 But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage?  14 Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you.  15 Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’  16 So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

There’s something about this parable that makes us nervous.  Most of us, anyway.  If we’re honest, we really don’t like the idea that the workers who were only in the field for an hour or two got paid the same as those who had “borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.”  It’s not fair.  It offends our sense of justice even if it is Jesus who’s telling the story.  As Barbara Brown Taylor says, this parable is a little like the cod liver oil that mothers used to give their kids: you know it’s good for you, you trust the one who is giving it to you, but that doesn’t make it any  easier to swallow. 

We have a built-in sense of fair play and fair pay and when they don’t go the  way we think they should, we tend to let people know how we feel about it.  Here’s an actual letter written to the head of a government relief agency: 

Dear Sir:
It seems worthwhile to call your attention to what is going on in nearby Hoboken relative to “relief”…True relief is approved by the people of the USA but merely making loafers out of individuals who don’t want to work is definitely to the detriment of the country and is disastrous to the taxpayers of the country. If the situation as it now exists is not soon changed the voters of the country will give the present administration a thorough cleanout next November. 

Yours truly, [1]

That letter was written in 1934, during the depths of the Great Depression, to Harry Hopkins, head of the Federal Emergency Relief Administration.  The writer of that letter didn’t feel that workers on local WPA projects were being required to work long enough or hard enough for the money they were receiving.  He didn’t think it was fair that his tax dollars were paying salaries to people he saw as “loafers.”

A sense of what’s fair and what’s not may be built into us.

In 2003, Psychologists Sarah Brosnan and Frans de Waal did an experiment with female Capuchin monkeys.  They trained the monkeys so that each time they did the “work” of bringing them a granite pebble they got “paid” with a slice of cucumber.  The monkeys really like cucumber, so they learned to do this “work” very quickly.  Then one day Brosnan and deWaal gave one of the monkeys a grape instead of a cucumber slice as payment for her pebble.  Capuchins like cucumber, but grapes are their absolute favorite food.  All the other monkeys saw this and there was suddenly much excitement.  Wow!  Grapes!  But when the next Capuchin came to redeem her pebble and instead of a grape she got the usual slice of cucumber, she went ballistic.  She threw the cucumber back at the handlers and started shrieking at them and violently shaking her cage.  After repeating this experiment several times, the monkeys went on strike and wouldn’t bring their pebbles at all any more unless they got paid in grapes. 

 Not too long ago the Governor of Massachusetts was on a radio talk show outlining plans to provide temporary, safe assistance for some of the thousands of unaccompanied migrant children who had been crossing our southern border.  One woman who called in asked,  “Why do we have to spend our money to take care of somebody else’s children?”[2]

A lot of people would ask that same question.  A lot of Christians, concerned about immigration issues, would ask that same question. Why should we take responsibility for this?  Why should we take responsibility for a lot of other things?

Why should I have to wear a mask?  What about my personal freedom?

Why should I have to take responsibility for standing against racism?  Why do I have to learn to recognize white privilege and other systemic and cultural factors that have made life difficult for persons of color?  What does that have to do with me?

Why should we be concerned about income inequality?  

I think the short answer from Jesus, especially as we see him in Matthew’s gospel, would simply be we should do it because it’s the right thing to do.

For Jesus and for his followers, fulfilling righteousness, or, more simply, doing the right thing is a central theme in the Gospel of Matthew.  It starts in chapter 3 when Jesus is baptized.  John the baptizer says, “This is all wrong, you should be baptizing me!”  And Jesus replies, “Let’s just do this for now ‘so that all righteousness may be fulfilled.’”  In other words, it’s the right thing to do.  

In chapter 7, after telling us to treat others the way we would like to be treated, Jesus reminds us that “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.”  In other words, those who do the right thing.   

This theme of doing the right thing is expressed with crystal clarity in chapter 25 where Jesus uses the metaphor of separating the sheep from the goats, the righteous from the unrighteous.  The ones who enter the kingdom and inherit eternal life are the ones who feed the hungry, give water to the thirsty, welcome to the stranger, heal the sick and so on.  They’re the ones who do the right thing and in doing it they minister to Jesus, himself.

The parable in today’s gospel is another example of a “do the right thing” story even though our gut reaction to it is that the landowner is doing the wrong thing. 

We usually call this story The Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard.  The problem with that title is that it puts our focus on the workers and the vineyard, the place where they’re laboring all day in the hot sun.  That means that we’re going to have a tendency to be  thinking about this from the workers’ point of view.  But what happens if we call this story The Land Owner and the Marketplace? 

The story starts with the landowner and ends with the landowner, so let’s keep our focus on him.  He goes to the marketplace at 6 in the morning and hires all the laborers he needs for the day.  He goes back to the marketplace at 9 and sees that there are still workers who haven’t been hired.  Now if we’re Jesus’ original audience listening to this, we have assumed that he doesn’t really need any more workers—a smart landowner, and you don’t get to be a landowner without being smart—would have hired all the workers he needed the first time out.  But he sees workers who haven’t been hired by anyone else, so he hires some of them. He goes back at noon and it’s the same thing so he hires some more.  Then again at 3 and finally again at 5, almost at the end of the work day.  

One has to wonder, of course, why those workers are available.  Why are they “standing there idle?”  It’s tempting to make up stories for them, but there’s no need to and it doesn’t really suit the purpose of the parable.  They’re there because, as one of them puts it so succinctly, “No one has hired us.”  There are more laborers than there is demand for labor.  End of story.  

At the end of the day it’s time to pay them.  The landowner had agreed with the first workers he hired that he would pay them each a denarius, the usual fair rate for a day’s labor.  A Roman silver denarius would feed a family for 3 to 6 days depending on the size of the family, so these first-hired workers are happy to make the deal.  It’s decent pay.  When the landowner hired the others later in the day he simply said he would pay them “whatever is right.”  

The landowner pays the last-hired workers first, and it turns out that his idea of “what is right” is a denarius;  a full day’s pay for an hour’s work.  The workers who had been hired first see this and think they’re in for a huge bonus, but when they only get paid a denarius, in keeping with their contract, they’re upset.  “They began to grumble against the owner of the estate, saying, ‘These last worked but one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’”

We sympathize, but the landowner has a point when he replies, ‘Friend, I am not being unfair to you. Did you not agree with me to work for a denarius? Take what is yours and be gone. I choose to give to this last man the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?  Or are you envious because I am generous?’

Okay, so fair enough.  A deal is a deal.  Still, it all seems kind of unfair to those workers who were out in the vineyard all day. So what’s going on here?

Well to really understand this we have to go all the way back to the beginning of the parable where Jesus says, “the kingdom of heaven is like…”  Those words are our clue that Jesus is telling us a story about kingdom values, God’s values.  And it’s important to remember when we think about these values that Jesus isn’t just talking pie in the sky in the sweet by and by.  Jesus was announcing that the kingdom was enngiken, arriving, obtainable, drawing near, within reach.  Jesus was expecting us to embrace God’s vision and then to work to make it a reality “on earth as it is in heaven.” 

Amy-Jill Levine in her book Short Stories by Jesus says that this is a parable about economics and righteousness—this world economics and this-world righteousness as God would like to see us practicing them.

Why does the landowner go out repeatedly to hire more workers when he already hired all he needs with his first visit to the marketplace?  He hires the others because they need jobs and he can afford to hire them.  It’s that simple.  

In hiring them, even the last ones hired, he gives them the dignity of earning a wage so they don’t have to beg.  He provides for their families so they don’t have to rely on the charity of the community, and thus he preserves the community’s resources.  He honestly meets the terms of his contract with the first ones hired and he generously goes beyond the expectations of those hired later.  He performs both an act of righteousness and a mitzvah, an act of generosity.  He is focused on the needs of the community more than on his own needs.  He voluntarily distributes his wealth so that the community is more stable.  

At the end of the parable when the early workers imply that he is being unfair he asks them, “Are you envious because I am generous?”  That, at least is how it’s translated.  What it actually says in the Greek is, “Is your eye evil because I am good?”

It’s a reminder that how we see things is vitally important.  

Years ago when a number of players for the Yankees were renegotiating their contracts there was scuttlebutt that a number of them were unhappy with the terms they were being offered.  A reporter happened to catch Yogi Berra as he was leaving the owner’s office and asked him if he was happy with the terms of his contract.  Yogi replied, “I’m gonna get to play baseball again next year for the Yankees, and would you believe it, they’re gonna pay me besides!”

We live in a time that’s ripe for change, Kairos moment, and so much of what happens next depends on how we see the world.  Is our eye evil because God is generous?  Or can we see God’s astonishing generosity and learn to emulate it, to copy it, to practice on earth as it is in heaven?

In our rite of baptism and in our affirmation of baptism, we have vowed “to proclaim Christ through word and deed, to care for others and the world God made, and to work for justice and peace.”

In other words, we vowed to be like the owner of the vineyard, to see the world with God’s vision of generosity.  Because it’s the right thing to do.

In Jesus’ name.


[1] https://herb.ashp.cuny.edu

[2] Paul Santmire, Preaching On Creation, https://lutheransrestoringcreation.org/sunday-september-18-24-year-1-santmire/

Let It Be

Matthew 18:21-35

When I was turning eleven, the thing I wanted more than anything else in the world was a gas powered model plane, the kind with its own little engine and propeller and a control grip with strings that connected to the elevators so you could make it take off and land and climb and, if you were really good at it, make it do loop the loops.  So when, on my 11th birthday, I unwrapped a large box to discover a balsa wood scale model Piper Cub (some assembly required) with an 18 inch wingspan, I was over the moon!  

Over the course of the following weeks I stole time from my homework and from practicing my clarinet and piano to carefully put the plane together, paint it a deep cherry red, then meticulously place all the decals so it really did look exactly like a miniature version of the Piper Cubs I had seen at the Long Beach Airport.  This was hard work for me because at that time in my life meticulous was not my strong suit.  Finally, though, my beautiful little plane was ready to fly. 

To prepare for the big first flight, I read the accompanying instructions over and over again.  I practiced holding my hand firm and steady on the control grip, rocking my wrist in small, steady movements just like it said in the booklet.  I waxed the control lines with beeswax so they would move easily through the guides in the fuselage.  I checked and triple-checked that they were properly and tightly connected to the elevators.  And then I told my dad she was ready to go.

Here’s the thing.  It took two people to get one of those planes off the ground.  This was 1964.  Radio controlled planes existed but they were rare and expensive.  What I had was the kind where the “pilot” held a control grip 25 to 30 feet away from the plane.  Two strings went from the grip to the plane.  By rocking your wrist you could make the elevators on the tail of the plane go up or down, which made the plane go up or down.  All of that was a one-person operation.  But once you got the engine started, somebody had to hold onto the plane and keep it in one place while the pilot took control at the grip.  If you tried to start the engine then run back to the grip, the plane would be likely to zip off to its own destruction before you could get control.

Dad had already convinced me that it would be best for him to start the engine which was done by twirling the propeller.  His argument was simple: the blade of that propeller could do a lot more damage to my smaller, fingers than it could to his if said fingers didn’t get out of the way in time.  So fine.  Dad would start the engine on my plane’s maiden flight.  That seemed reasonable.  

What didn’t seem at all reasonable to me, though, was when he insisted that I hold the plane while he ran back to the control grip so he could take the plane up for its first flight.  He pointed out that he was an aerospace engineer who designed fighter jets and spacecraft for a living.  He reminded me that he had piloted a B-24 during the war.  Yeah, I said, but it’s my plane, my birthday present!  I’ve read all the instructions!  Didn’t matter.  I was overruled. 

Dad started the engine.  I held the plane in place.  Dad ran to take the control grip.  He gave me a nod, I released the plane, and it was airborne almost immediately, lunging upward at a steep angle.  Then, just as suddenly as it had leaped for the sky, it plunged straight back into the ground, burying its propeller in the dirt and breaking the wing.  Apparently the skills required to fly a B-24 didn’t translate well to flying a scale model of a Piper Cub. 

I was heartbroken.  And furious.  Dad mumbled that he would fix it then disappeared into the house without another word.  No apology.  

That plane sat on his workbench in the garage for a long time.  I started to fix it myself once but Dad stopped me saying angrily that he would fix it.  At some point it got moved to a shelf above the workbench.  It was still there when I went off to college.    

Forgiveness is hard.  It’s especially hard if the wound is deep or if the person who wronged you doesn’t acknowledge what they’ve done.

We have close friends whose daughter was murdered.  Her husband deliberately drove their car into a wall, killing them both.  The fact that he died, too, doesn’t lessen the pain for our friends.  The fact that their son-in-law was mentally ill doesn’t reduce their grief or make it any easier to forgive him.  And they know they need to forgive him.  They know that holding on to their anger and their desire for retribution only keeps them shackled to the pain and ugliness of what happened.  They know this in their heads.  But it is oh, so hard to let go of it in their hearts.

We should be careful when we talk about forgiveness.  When we quote Jesus telling Peter that he needs to forgive seventy times seven, we need to remember that behind the hyperbole, Jesus knows forgiveness is not easy.  It’s not our default mode.  We need to make sure we don’t wound people who are already hurting by making something so difficult sound trifling or easy.

Jesus tells Peter a story about two servants who are in debt.  It’s a good metaphor, because when we’re wronged or when we wrong someone else, it creates a kind of debt.  There is a new imbalance in the relationship.

Our natural desire is to balance the scales.   We want the wrong acknowledged.  At the minimum we want an apology.  Usually we want a price to be paid, and if that doesn’t happen, we dwell on it.  We hold on to the wrong done to us.  It gets magnified.  We pick at the wound inflicted on us.  It gets inflamed and festers.  Interest gets added to the debt. 

The problem with all this is that even if we get the vengeance or retribution we want, it doesn’t change what happened.  It doesn’t heal the wound.  It doesn’t repair the relationship.  What happened still happened.  The debt can’t really be repaid.  The scales can’t be balanced because they’re broken.  And you can very easily end up in an endless exchange of tit for tat and spend the rest of your days keeping score.

 “Not forgiving,” said Anne Lamott, “is like drinking rat poison and then waiting for the rat to die.”[1]

Forgiving is hard.  But it’s the only way out.

Anne Lamott also wrote, “Forgiveness, means it finally becomes unimportant that you hit back. You’re done. It doesn’t necessarily mean that you want to have lunch with the person. If you keep hitting back, you stay trapped in the nightmare… forgiveness means you’re done.”[2] 

The Greek word that’s translated as forgive in the New Testament is aphiemi.  It means to release, to let go, to let it be.  Forgiveness is a decision to let the past be the past.  To quit dragging it into the present.  It is a decision to move forward, to release both yourself and the other party from whatever chains bind you to that episode of wrong.  

Lewis Smedes wrote, “To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you.”

When Jesus tells the story of the two indebted slaves in Matthew 18, he uses outrageous hyperbole.  The first slave owes the king ten thousand talents.  That’s a staggering amount of money, equivalent to the national debt of a small country.  As Peter and the disciples listen to Jesus telling this story, the only thing more shocking than the size of that debt is that the king simply forgives it.  But even more shocking than that is that the forgiven slave refuses to grant the same kind of grace to his fellow slave who owes him only a hundred denarii.  

The traditional interpretation of this parable goes something like this: we should always be mindful of how much God has forgiven us, so we should forgive each other.

Okay.  Sure.  But let’s go back to that staggering number.  The ten thousand talents.  Sixty million denarii.  What if, instead of thinking in terms of all the ways known and unknown that we’ve offended God, that number represented all the ways known and unknown that we’ve offended each other.  Especially the unknowns.  The forgotten promises.  The stinging remarks.  The things left undone.  The unkind things said behind the back in the company of others.  The slow death of relationships by a thousand paper cuts. And then one day there’s a come to Jesus moment and we have a choice.  Do we forgive?  Do we let the past be the past?  

Forgiveness doesn’t mean you forget.  Forgive and forget is not a thing.  Human beings are not at all good at forgetting their injuries.

So forgive and remember, but don’t let that memory bind you to that injury.

Forgiving doesn’t mean you trust the person who wronged you.  But it may mean you give them an opportunity to earn your trust again.  Maybe.  Forgiveness means you release them from that old injury.  It doesn’t mean they automatically get a chance to injure you again.

Forgiving doesn’t mean you make yourself available for or vulnerable to more wounding or abuse.  

Forgiveness is hard.  It may take planning.  It may take time.

Forgiveness also takes understanding.

It took me a very long time to forgive my dad for wrecking my Piper Cub, especially since he never apologized for it.

It took me a long time to understand how he must have felt about crashing my plane.  Sure, it broke my heart and infuriated me all in about fifteen seconds.  But Dad was a pilot!  He was an aerospace engineer, a designer of supersonic aircraft and flight systems!  And here, in a moment of patriarchal arrogance he had destroyed his son’s toy plane!   And along with it more than a little of his own self-esteem.  

It took me a long time to appreciate that he had wounded himself at least as much as he had hurt me.  It took me decades to realize that the cloudy look I saw on his face as he stomped back to the house, the look I had thought was anger, was actually shame.  

My dad, was so capable of so many things, but putting his emotions into words, especially emotions that troubled him, was not one of them.  No wonder he never wanted to talk about that plane ever again.  No wonder it just sat there for years, untouched, on the workbench, a mute reminder of the day he failed to be both the father and the pilot he wanted to be.

The parable of the two indebted slaves ends this way:  the king is furious that the slave whose enormous debt he has forgiven has shown no such mercy to his fellow slave who owes him only a pittance, so he hands the greedy slave over to be tortured until he can pay his entire debt.  Jesus then says, “So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

So, forgive each other or off you go to eternal debtors prison?  Is that the message?

Well, maybe it is.  Because if you’re not forgiving, you’re shackling yourself to old wounds and grievances.  You’re locking yourself in a past where the script is engraved in stone and the players always move through the same blocking and say the same lines.  The same scenes repeat endlessly just on different stages. 

Better to let it go.  Let the past be the past.  Let it be.

Move on.

Forgiveness is a decision to love.

“You can’t forgive without loving,” said Maya Angelou. “And I don’t mean sentimentality. I don’t mean mush. I mean having enough courage to stand up and say, ‘I forgive. I’m finished with it.’

I eventually forgave my dad for crashing my plane.  I’m finished with it.

I wish I had told him while he was still alive.


[1] Anne Lamott, Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith

[2]Anne Lamott, Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith

Time to Wake Up

Romans 13:8-14, Matthew 18:15-20

At the end of August in 2018 in the small town of Actlán, Mexico, a message began pinging from phone to phone on WhatsApp:  “Please everyone be alert because a plague of child kidnappers has entered the country. It appears that these criminals are involved in organ trafficking. In the past few days, children aged four, eight and 14 have disappeared and some of these kids have been found dead with signs that their organs were removed. Their abdomens had been cut open and were empty.”  

No one knew exactly where this grisly story came from or if it was even true.  

On the 29th of August, as this horrid rumor about child abduction was sweeping through the area, Ricardo Flores and his uncle, Alberto, came in to town to buy supplies for the cinderblock water well they were building on Alberto’s ranch in the countryside.  Since Ricardo and Alberto did not live in town, the local rumor monger did not recognize them and began spreading the word that they were the feared child abductors.  Francisco Martinez began livestreaming into his phone saying, “People of Actlán de Osorio, Puebla, please come give your support, give your support. Believe me, the kidnappers are now here.”

Ricardo and Alberto quickly found themselves surrounded by a mob. The police arrested them for disturbing the peace, but since they had no real reason to hold the two men, they let them go.  Sadly, the moment Alberto and Roberto walked out of the police station they were seized by the angry mob who beat them, doused them with gasoline and burned them to death.

It turned out, when it was all over, that the rumor about child abduction was fake news.[1]  

Terry Pratchett wrote, “A lie can run around the world before the truth has got its boots on.”[2]

Rumors can be fiercely destructive.  Even deadly.  Rumors can even be weaponized.

Because rumors and misinformation can be so destructive, in 1942, as World War II was utterly transforming life in the US, psychologists Gordon Allport and Robert Knapp set up the first Rumor Clinic at Harvard University.  Their goal was to stop pernicious rumors that could undermine the war effort or upset public morale, and, in the process to try to understand why rumors are so attractive to us.

Knapp noted that rumors arise to express the public’s feelings in a time of crisis or instability.  Rumors supply the illusion of information when real information is unavailable or unsatisfying.  They can give a sense of having some measure of control when things seem out of control.  

Knapp identified three kinds of rumors and the psychological functions they serve.  The wedge driver rumor expresses hostility in a time of frustration and allows us to find a scapegoat.  The current rumor about the Corona virus originating in a Chinese lab is an example.  Pipe dream rumors express our hopes and wishes.  The debunked rumor about hydroxychloroquine as a cure for Covid is an example.  Bogie rumors express our fears.  For instance the rumor back in April that hospitals were not going to treat anyone over 60 was a bogie rumor.

When we’re living in highly uncertain circumstances where even day-to-day decisions can have unforeseen outcomes, rumors will be rampant.  They provide an outlet for our collective emotional life.  But they can have dire consequences.

One of the most common negative consequences of rumors is that they can damage relationships.  Let’s say Gomer tells Wanda that he heard that eating bleu cheese can keep you from getting the flu.  Two weeks later Wanda is in bed with the flu, feeling miserable, despite eating bleu cheese every day since she first heard about it from Gomer.  Now she’s going to be skeptical about anything Gomer tells her.

Or let’s say Wanda doesn’t buy the idea of the bleu cheese cure for a minute.  Now she’s going to wonder if Gomer’s elevator goes all the way to the top floor since he passed along this crazy idea.

The easy way to avoid the mistrust and skepticism that inevitably arises from this kind of thing is simple: don’t pass along anything unless you are absolutely certain that it’s true.

There’s a simple rule that has been attributed to Socrates or sometimes to the Buddha: “Before you speak, let your words pass through three gates.  Is it true?  Is it kind?  Is it necessary?”  For those of us who are followers of Jesus, who are trying to live in and maintain the beloved community, I would add one more gate:  Is it loving?

We’re living in a very conflicted time.  Information and misinformation is flying around us at lightspeed—information and misinformation about the pandemic, about science, about political candidates, about political parties, about nations, about issues, about factions.  A lot of that information and misinformation is sent out with an agenda.  And some of those agendas are destructive.  

If ever there was a time when we needed to double and triple check the truth, the agenda, and the sources of the information that comes to us, this is it.

I think we know that not everything we hear is true.  But we’re not always diligent about taking time to verify sources and facts before we pass things along.

As St. Paul says in today’s epistle reading from Romans, “You know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep.”  There’s a lot at stake—in our country, in our communities, in our church, in our personal lives, in our relationships.  We need to be wide awake and thoughtful about what we hear and what we share.

But as St. Paul also says in that same passage, the one thing we owe each other above everything else is to love each other.  All the commandments “are summed up in this word, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.”

Loving each other with agape love means that we tell each other the truth.  No rumors.  No fake news.  No gossip.  It means we check our sources.  If necessary, it means we check our sources’ sources.  

As Paul wrote to the Ephesians:

We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming.  But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ,  from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love. (Ephesians 4:14-16)

But what do you do if something does happen to damage your relationship with someone else in the community, if some rumor or misinformation or half-truth or something worse insinuates itself between you?

Fortunately, in Matthew 18 we have a formula in the words of Jesus, himself, for dealing with exactly that situation.

The first step in Jesus’ formula for reconciliation is to go to the person who you feel has wronged you one-on-one, alone, and talk about it.  Speak your truth in love.  If that person listens to you, all well and good.  Your relationship can begin healing.  I should note here that the Greek word translated as “listens,” ἀκούω (akouō) implies not just listening but understanding.  So the hope is that you will come to an understanding.

Unfortunately, instead doing that, our typical way of dealing with such things often is to triangulate, to find someone else to hear our grievance.  As Brian Stoffregen describes it, 

“When we have been wronged, we often don’t confront the person. Instead, we create triangles. We go and tell two or three or more of our friends, ‘Do you know what so-and-so did to me?’ Jesus did not say: ‘Go tell everybody what that stupid jerk did to you.’ Jesus told us: ‘Go and talk to that stupid jerk about the hurtful actions s/he has done,’ although Jesus didn’t quite use those words. We are to go and talk to the person, not to go around telling everybody else. We are to be so concerned about the breach in the relationship, that we are willing to do whatever is possible to restore it.”[3]

So that’s the first step.  Go talk to the person.  If that doesn’t work, try step two.  Bring two or three others into the conversation.  Listen to what they have to say about it.  And here’s a caveat:  Be prepared to be told that you’re in the wrong.  And if that happens, be prepared to be gracious about it.

Remember, this is the ideal way of dealing with disagreement or injury within the beloved community as Jesus described it.  This part with two or three witnesses is also completely consistent with dispute resolution as it described in Deuteronomy.

If you’ve tried steps one and two, the additional witnesses think you’re in the right, and the other person still won’t listen or try to understand, then Jesus says to take it to the whole congregation.

This may seem a little radical to us, but it really is wise in two very important ways.  First, it brings everything out in the open and puts a dead stop to any scuttlebutt that might be circulating.  It stops the rumor mill dead in its tracks.  Most importantly, though, it acknowledges that relationships are important in the beloved community, that, in fact, the community exists because of relationships.  One fractured relationship can collapse the community as surely as one fractured beam can bring down the roof. 

So you’ve tried to resolve your differences by talking one on one.  You’ve tried with one or two others sitting in.  You’ve tried with the whole church.  But you can’t seem to reach that other person.  Now what?  

“If the offender refuses to listen even to the church,” says Jesus, “let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”  

That sounds so harsh.  But is it?  On the one hand, it seems clear that at this point the offender is separated from the rest of the church.  An outsider.  On the other hand, it’s important to note that Gentiles and tax collectors were a special focus for outreach in Matthew’s gospel.  

So yes, that person is now on the outs for a while.  But you—and the you here is 2nd person singular—you have a new special focus for outreach.  You have a mission to find a way to bring that person back into the fold.  You don’t get to wipe your hands and say good riddance.

In a world and a time where so much is falling apart, now more than ever the beloved community needs to do everything we can to hold it together.

We need to remember that we owe each other love.  Love that is patient and kind.  Love that is not arrogant or boastful or rude.  Love that is not irritable or resentful or self-seeking.  Love that rejoices in truth.  And speaks truth.

We need to remember that, as much as we might like to have everything spelled out, as far as God is concerned, the entire law is spelled out in “love your neighbor as yourself.”  

We need to remember to speak the truth in love.  To pass our words through the three gates—is it true, is it kind, is it necessary—before we run them out of our mouths our through our typing fingers.  

Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers;  the night is far gone, the day is near.  In Jesus’ name.


[1] BBC News, 12 Nov 2018, Marco Martinez

[2] The Truth, Terry Pratchett

[3] Brian Stoffregen, Exegetical Notes, Matthew 18:15-20

It Is To Laugh

Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy; then it was said among the nations, “The LORD has done great things for them.” – Psalms 126.2

The heat has been oppressive.  The news mostly so.  The pandemic continues and working from the spare bedroom is losing some of its charm.  Since Meri and I both read a good deal for our work, we watch TV to unwind, but since we have a penchant for whodunnits, especially the British variety, our TV viewing isn’t always relaxing.  So we decided that, for the sake of our mental health, we need to be intentional about laughing.  To that end we have begun deliberately mixing comedies into the mysteries and jokes into the day.  For the sake of our souls.  I firmly believe that Jesus loved a good joke and even told a few, though they may have lost something in the translation.  Did you hear the one about the camel trying to squeeze through the eye of the needle?  

A boy asked his dad, “Where did people come from?”  His dad replied, “Well, Adam and Eve had babies, then they grew up and had babies, and so on.”  The boy then asked his mom, “Where did people come from?”  She replied, well, a very long time ago apes and humans broke off from a common ape-like ancestor. Apes went one way, people went the other.”  The boy ran back to his father and said, “You lied!  Mom said humans come from apes!”  The dad calmly replied, “She was talking about her side of the family.”

“There is nothing in the world so irresistibly contagious as laughter and good humor.” 
― Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol

My friend thinks he’s so smart.  He said that an onion is the only food that can make you cry.  So I hit him with a coconut.

“I know not all that may be coming, but be it what it will, I’ll go to it laughing.” 
― Herman Melville, Moby-Dick or, the Whale

Two cowboys own a ranch.  One night someone steals their only bull.  They need to buy another bull but they only have $500.  One cowboy says to his buddy, you stay here and mind the cows and I’ll go to the market to see if I can find another bull for under $500.  Well, he finds one for $499.  He goes to the telegraph office to send a telegram to his pal so he’ll bring the trailer to take the bull back to the ranch, but discovers that telegrams cost $1 per word and he only has the one dollar left.  After a lot of thought he tells the telegraph operator to send the word “comfortable.”  “How’s that gonna tell him to bring the trailer?” asks the operator.  “It’ll work,” says the cowboy.  “My partner reads real slow.  He’ll have to sound it out.  Come for ta bull.”

“Laughter and tears are both responses to frustration and exhaustion. I myself prefer to laugh, since there is less cleaning do to do afterward.” ― Kurt Vonnegut

In a Catholic school cafeteria, a nun places a note in front of a pile of apples, “Only take one. God is watching.” Further down the line is a pile of cookies. A little boy makes his own note, “Take all you want. God is watching the apples.”

“With mirth and laughter let old wrinkles come.” ― William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice

A husband and wife were driving through Louisiana. As they approached Natchitoches, they started arguing about the pronunciation of the town. They argued back and forth, then they stopped for lunch. At the counter, the husband asked the waitress, “Before we order, could you please settle an argument for us? Would you please pronounce the name of the place where we are very slowly?” She leaned over the counter and said, “Burrr-gerrr Kiiing.”

“I don’t trust anyone who doesn’t laugh.” ― Maya Angelou

A boy with a monkey on his shoulder was walking down the road when he passed a policeman who said, “Now, now young lad, I think you had better take that monkey to the zoo.” The next day, the boy was walking down the road with the monkey on his shoulder again, when he passed the same policeman. The policeman said, “Hey there, I thought I told you to take that money to the zoo!” The boy answered, “I did! Today I’m taking him to the movies.”

“I love people who make me laugh. I honestly think it’s the thing I like most, to laugh. It cures a multitude of ills. It’s probably the most important thing in a person.” ― Audrey Hepburn

Robert Frost said that if we couldn’t laugh we would all go insane.  This year, 2020, I think that may be true.  So hold on to your humor, beloved kindred in Christ.  If that goes, you know we’re in trouble.

Pro Gloria Dei,

Pastor Steve

“Among those whom I like or admire, I can find no common denominator, but among those whom I love, I can; all of them make me laugh.” ― W. H. Auden

Between a Rock and the Devil

Matthew 16:21-28

Once upon a time there was a jester.  His job, of course, was to amuse the king, to tell him jokes and funny stories or even to find some comedy in affairs of state within reason.  Unfortunately, this particular jester loved puns.  Simply couldn’t resist them. “What did the grape say when it got crushed? Nothing, it just let out a little wine.”  “You should see my collection of candy canes.  They’re all in mint condition.”  “Time flies like an arrow. Fruit flies like a banana.”  That sort of thing. 

The king, for his part, hated puns.  Hated them.  And one day when there had been one pun too many he told the jester, “If I hear even one more pun out of you you’re a dead man.  I’m serious.  I’ll have you hanged.  Do you understand me?”  The jester could see that the king was serious,  so he simply said, “Yes, majesty. No more puns.  I promise on my life.”  

Just then the smell of smoke came wafting into the throne room through the open widow.  The jester looked out into the town and cried, “Oh no!  The bakery is on fire!”  Then without thinking added, “The poor baker.  His business is toast.”

The next morning as the jester stood on the gallows and the hangman slipped the rope over his head, a messenger came galloping up frantically.  “The king has decided to be merciful,” he called out to the jester.  “If you will swear never to utter another pun for as long as you live, he will spare your life.”

The jester looked out at the crowd who had come to witness his hanging, then with a wry little smile said, “Well, no noose is good noose.”  And that was the end of him.

I love that story because even with all its silliness it illustrates an important point about human nature:  we find it hard to change.  Even when the stakes are high, life-and-death high, we don’t like to change.  The jester in the story couldn’t bring himself to make a simple change even though his life was on the line.

We don’t like to change the way we do things.  And we are especially resistant to changing the way we think.  The way we think about ourselves.  The way we think about others.  The way we think about the world.  The way we think about God.

In this week’s gospel lesson, Simon Peter is having trouble changing his understanding of what it means for Jesus to be the Christ, the Messiah.  Jesus had asked him, “Who do you say that I am?”  In a flash of insight, Simon Peter had responded, “You are the Christ, the son of the living God!”  That’s when Jesus in a play on words, a kind of pun, affirms that Simon is Petrus, a Rock, and that he will build his church on the petra, the bedrock of Peter’s confession.  

For a glowing moment, Peter is the star.  He had the right answer.  He’s A Rock.  But then things turn sideways for him. 

From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.

This absolutely does not fit with Peter’s idea of Messiah.  Messiah may go to Jerusalem, but it won’t be to suffer and die.  Messiah, in Peter’s understanding, in is a conqueror.  Messiah will ride in at the head of an army, kick out the Romans, and restore the Kingdom of Israel.  Messiah will lead a revolution!  That’s how Peter understands it.  So he takes Jesus aside and rebukes him.  “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.”

I can sympathize with Peter.  I think we all can, at least to some extent.  He had this picture in his head of how he thought things should be and how he thought they should go.  But it wasn’t what Jesus had planned, what God had planned. 

Peter needed to change.  He needed to change his understanding of Messiah.  He needed to change his understanding of Jesus.  He needed to change his understanding of how God was working.  He needed to change his understanding of how the world works.  He needed to change his understanding of himself and his role in what was happening. 

We don’t like to change.  It’s not just that we don’t like it, we have all kinds of ways of resisting it, especially when it comes to changing our ideas, our understanding of things, the way we think.

We have all kinds of ways of resisting information we don’t want to hear.  Often we immerse ourselves in echo chambers so we only receive information that is consistent with our way of thinking.  We only watch certain news channels, only read certain papers and periodicals.  Surround ourselves with social media friends who think like us and screen out those who don’t.  Some simply close their minds and refuse to take in any new or different information. 

And then there’s what writer Julian Sanchez calls Epistemic Closure.  He describes it this way:

“An ‘echo chamber’ just means you never hear any contrary information. The idea of ‘epistemic closure’ was that you WOULD hear new and contrary information, but you have mechanisms in your belief system that reject anything that might force you to update your beliefs.[1]

Peter needed to update his beliefs.  But he resisted.  He pushed back.  “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.”

It must have cut Peter to the heart when Jesus turned to him and said, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me.  You’re setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.  For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.  

 How often do we try to get Jesus to follow our plans instead of committing ourselves to him and his plans? 

I wonder sometimes if we—and by we I mean a large segment of white American Christianity—I wonder if we haven’t created an epistemic closure version of Christianity.  We call ourselves Christian because we believe certain things about Jesus—that he’s the son of God, that he died for our sins, that by his cross and resurrection he saves us.  And if someone challenges our claim to the Christian label because of the way we treat poor people or hungry people or immigrants, or people of color, or people of differing sexuality, or because of our infatuation with firearms, our because of our less than generous politics, or simply because we’re not really doing much to change the world into something that looks more like the kin-dom of heaven, we  crank up the defense mechanisms of our epistemic closure to shield us from any pointed new information or hard questions.  We point to the creed or our church attendance or our giving to certain things.  We point to particular passages in our Bibles.  We point to our baptism.  We point to our claim that we’re saved.

 We forget sometimes what Jesus said in Matthew 7:21: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.”

Jesus had to shock Peter into the fact that he needed a makeover of the mind, heart and spirit.  He had to call him Satan.  The cosmic opponent.  Lord, that must have hurt.  Going from Rock to Devil in nothing flat.  Jesus had to shock Peter to get him to simply stop believing certain things about him in his head and to get him, instead, to start following him with all his heart.

What would he have to say to you to get through your defenses?  What would he have to say to me?  What would he have to say to turn us from mere believers into followers who carry a cross?

“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.  For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”

There is so much in life that fragments us.  Not just things that fragment our unity with each other, but things that fragment our individual souls.  We try to wear layers of identities that don’t always fit well with each other.  The patterns clash.  They chip and chafe our psyches if we ever give half a thought to them.  It’s hard to love when you’re trying to hold the pieces of your soul together.  Better to let your self—your selves—fall away into the love of Christ.

That’s exactly what Jesus is asking us to do.  Deny ourselves—let go of our false selves—put down the beliefs and personas that don’t really fit well with the identity of follower of Christ.  And quit trying to make Jesus wear a costume that fits our ideas of who we might prefer him to be.  

Lay it all down.  Pick up a cross.  And follow.  That’s where we will find our lives, our souls, and be saved.  That’s where we will be made whole.  In Christ’s healing work.  In Jesus’ name.  Amen.


[1] Julian Sanchez@Normative

Questions in the Key of Rock

Matthew 16:13-20

What was it like for them I wonder?  What was it like for the disciples traveling from place to place with Jesus?  Did Simon the Zealot argue with Matthew the tax collector every step of the way?  Who assigned the chores when they camped somewhere?  Was Jesus responsible for all that or did he delegate that job to someone else?  How many of them were there?  Was it  just Jesus and the 12 when they were on the road or were there more?  At one point Jesus sends out 70 on a mission; were they all part of the touring company or did that larger group stay behind at Capernaum?  Luke’s gospel mentions a number of women; did they travel with Jesus, too?   

Have you ever been to a place that both frightened and fascinated you?  A place that filled you with both awe and maybe a little bit of dread?

About ten years ago I was backpacking in the Sierras above Sequoia when we came around the bend of the trail onto a broad, open space of bald granite like a great, slightly sloping observation platform.  The view was nothing short of stunning.  In front of us the cliff dropped away into a yawning canyon that opened into an expansive valley.  Off to the north we could see all the way to Half Dome in Yosemite.  It felt like we were standing quite literally on the edge of the world.

As I said, the view was stunning.  And part of me wanted to stay there as long as possible just to soak it all in and marvel at the beauty of it all.  But another part of me was mindful of the sloping granite beneath my feet, some of it loose and chipped and slippery beneath my boots.  I was a good safe distance from the edge where the granite curved over then plunged into the emptiness, but I couldn’t help noticing that there was nothing that one might be able to grab onto if one happened to find oneself sliding toward trouble,  because, you know, life is uncertain.  Teenagers horse around.  People stumble.  And even geology hiccups from time to time.  A slight fear of heights makes you think about these things. 

So I was fascinated, but also a bit uneasy.

I imagine that’s how the disciples felt when they came to Caesarea Philippi.  

Fascinated but uneasy.

They’re in foreign territory, a little more than twenty-five miles from the Galilee.  They’ve walked there, of course.  And now here they are, good Jews, every one of them, standing on the hill overlooking the city, and the most dominant buildings they see are the temple to the god Pan and the temple to the emperor.  The divine Caesar.  

The temple to Pan was built around the entrance to a natural cave called Pan’s grotto.  It was also called the Gate to Hades.  Pan was regarded as a fertility god.  The pagans believed that the fertility gods slept through the winter in Hades then reemerged in the spring to bring new life to the world.  They believed that this grotto was Pan’s passageway to and from Hades, the realm of the dead.  Inside the grotto there was also a gushing spring—it was gushing in ancient times but now it’s barely a trickle—that was one of the sources for the Jordan river. 

What did the disciples think as they were looking at this assortment of temples to these other gods, these gods who were not their God, even a temple to the emperor—and the administrative buildings of the tetrarchy?   What did the disciples feel as they stood in this place confronted by the structures of religion and politics, but not their religion or their politics?

Did the ground feel, maybe, a little slippery under their feet?   Did they wonder if their nervousness might be the influence of Pan?  After all fear is Pan’s weapon; the word panic comes from Pan’s name.

And it’s here, confronted by strange powers—strange religion and strange government—that Jesus asks his first important question:  “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?”

Why would he ask that here?  Why now?  Why not back in Galilee where he’s been doing most of his teaching and working wonders?  Why now in this foreign place?  Is he trying to distract them from feeling so out of place?  Is he showing them what they’ll be up against later when they take the message of the kin-dom out into the wider world?  

“Who do people say that the Son of Man is?”

The disciples make it clear that people are impressed with Jesus.  They identify him with the pillars of righteousness and prophetic justice in their tradition:  John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah, one of the other prophets.  They understand that Jesus is someone who is somehow extraordinary.  But how, exactly?

Who do people say that Jesus is?  It’s still an important question for us.  

If you’re going to be a follower of Jesus, a representative of Jesus, you need to know how the rest of the world sees and understands Jesus, how they describe him, because that’s where conversation begins.  Who do they say he is?  You need to know that before you can make a good case for who you say he is.  

I imagine that Jesus thought a moment about their answers to his first question before he asked the next question: “But who do you say that I am?”

“You,” said Simon Peter, “are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”  

The Christ.  The Messiah.  The Anointed One.  I can’t help but wonder how Simon Peter understood his own words.

In his Commentary on Matthew my professor, the late Robert H. Smith wrote: “As the reality of the Son overwhelms mind and senses, people try to get a handle on him by fitting him into some convenient slot like prophet.  However, the Christ or Messiah is not a prophet but the goal of prophecy, not another promiser but the inaugurator of the promised time.  As Son of the living God his is the bearer of the presence of God and acts in the place of God, not as a renewer of old traditions, but as agent of God’s fresh creative work, bringer of new heavens and a new earth.”[1]

Who do you say that Jesus is?

Do you call him the Christ, the Messiah?  Do you understand him to be not merely a prophet but the goal of prophecy?  The one who was prophesied? 

Is he for you the Son of the living God?  Does he bear the presence of God in your life?  Do you see him not as the renewer of old traditions, but as the agent of God’s fresh creative work, the bringer of new heavens and a new earth?

Or has he become for you the centerpiece of old traditions?  Do the titles of Christ and Son of God simply echo memorized lines from the creeds that get repeated without much thought? 

Jesus is asking us the same question he asked Peter, James, John and the others as they stood overlooking the monuments built to idols and government:  “Who do you say that I am?”

We hear that question as we stare out into a world devoted to those same distractions and others even more powerful:  “Who do you say that I am?”

And it’s oh, so tempting for us to leap straight to the answer we memorized, the answer we have heard all our lives, without really thinking about the question or what our answer means. 

If you, like Peter, confess that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God, then you are also acknowledging that you have been invited to be part of his church, the ekklesia established on the bedrock of that confession.  You are acknowledging that you have been called to participate in Christ’s fresh, creative work of making the kin-dom of heaven a reality on earth as it is in heaven.  You are acknowledging that you have been invited to be part of the beloved community and to live by the ethic of grace and generosity that guides that community. 

In 1989, President George Bush was entering St. John’s Episcopal Church to attend Sunday worship when he was stopped by a homeless man, William Wallace Brown, Jr. who simply asked the president to pray for him.  President Bush  replied, “No. Come inside with us and pray for yourself.”  From that day on William Wallace Brown, Jr. attended church faithfully. He would sit in the pews in his street-dirty clothes alongside the rich and powerful and always put a dollar in the offering plate even when that dollar was all he had.

William Wallace Brown had been invited to come in to the beloved community, to encounter Jesus, the Christ, the Son of the Living God.  And to him that meant everything.

This community, this church built on the confession that Jesus is the Christ, is, in Robert Smith’s words, “well founded, not by human authority or ingenuity only, but by the exalted Jesus, Son of the living God.  This Jesus is not a figure of the past alone.  He is still present in the midst of the community, not as unseen observer only but with his authority and teaching.”[2]  

I would add that Jesus is still present with his love and compassion, and that these keys of the kin-dom will unlock the power in us to change the world.

In Jesus’ name.


[1] Robert H. Smith, The Augsburg Commentary on the New Testament: Matthew, pp.198-199; Augsburg Publishing House, 1989

[2] Ibid, 202-203