Sunday, October 30 – Sermon on John 8:31-36

John 8:31-36

 In a courtroom, a young, good-looking Navy lawyer name Lieutenant Kaffee questions an older, superior Colonel Jessup about the ordering of a “code red” which led to the murder of a fellow Marine.  Kaffee asks the questions, “Colonel Jessup, did you order the code red?”  “You want answers?” the colonel responds.  “I think I’m entitled to them,” he says.  “You want answers?” the colonel continues. “I want the truth!”  Then Colonel Jessup, played by Jack Nicholson, delivers the famous line – “You can’t handle the truth!”

Jesus said, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples.  Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”  Truth.  If you ask me, seems to be one of those things these days that we all are seeking and demanding.  We think we are entitled to it and we can handle it and yet none of us really has any clue what the truth is.  We want to know the truths, the facts of something, and yet in this internet and hyper-informative age, just about anything can be claimed as truth or fact.

Some scientists argue that global climate change is a real threat and an immediate concern.  Others say, there is nothing to be worried about.

We demand truth from our politician, and yet no one can seem to agree on whether Obama’s Jobs act can actually work or if Mitt Romney really did know about the undocumented workers who were hired to manicure his lawn.

Many of us long for a truth in religion too.  Did Jonah really get swallowed up by a big fish?  If not, then this whole thing is a sham.  Did Jesus really walk on water?  Doesn’t seem very possible to me.  Does God really hear my prayers, because I don’t know…I just don’t know.

We want the truth. We want the facts that are immediate and accurate.

But notice how Jesus doesn’t say, “If you know my teachings…if you have the facts about them…if you have them memorized, then you will know the truth.  No, Jesus says, “If you hold to my teaching…then you will know the truth.”  If you hold to them.  If you hold on.  If you hang in there.  If you hang around in them.  A better translation would be “If you abide with my teachings…then you will know the truth.”

To abide with something means to live with it.  To dwell with it.  To hang around and spend time in it.  When you dwell with someone, you begin to know things about them.  I can’t help but think about the first few months that Lauren and I lived together and the things we learned about each other.  She found out that I constantly make noise—if it’s not singing, its tapping, if its not tapping its humming, if its not humming its rattling whatever I’ve got in my hands.  And I found out that Lauren is notorious for leaving water glasses and coffee mugs anywhere and everywhere around the house.  In order to do the dishes, I’d have to go on a scavenger hunt to find them first. When you live with someone, when you abide with them, you find out things you didn’t know before.  Deeper things.

Jesus said, “If you abide in my teachings, then you will know the truth.” Jesus doesn’t seem to be talking about a type of truth that is simply immediate and factual, something you can google or look up on wikipedia.  But a truth that is deeper.  It is not something you can read in a book or hear on the TV; it is something you feel in your gut.  It’s not facts or information you carry in your head; it is something that breaks open your heart.  And it is that kind of truth that will set you free.

About 12 years ago, my cousin, Craig, and his wife, Jenny, and their two year old daughter were involved in a terrible car accident in Illinois.  Strangely enough, Jenny was the only one hurt and, yet, her injuries were quite severe.  Over the next couple of days, I remember hearing reports that she was going to be fine, but then I heard that she would live but with some severe disabilities.  It wasn’t clear what was going on.  Eventually, my parents went down to Illinois to be with all of the family who had gathered at the hospital.  When they arrived, my dad, who was a doctor and familiar with head trauma, knew what was going on.  Jenny was dying and no one had said that to the family.  And so my dad said that to the family.  He said that Jenny was dying, nothing was going to fix her situation, and that it was time to say goodbye.  Jenny died about a day later.  At her funeral, Craig, in his eulogy for his wife, mentioned my dad.  He said how grateful he was that someone told him the truth.  Sure the facts were that they could have kept her alive as long as the machines could last, but the truth…the truth is that she was dying.  It was the truth that set him free.  Free from false hope.  Free to let go.  Free to say goodbye.

“If you hold to my teachings…if you abide with them…if you live with them, then you will know the truth and the truth will set you free.”  On the surface, it seems that we as a society want truth that is immediate and accurate.  We want facts.  But what I think we really long for is for someone to speak to the deeper truth that we know to be lingering within us.

And Jesus does this later in our text.  Jesus speaks a deeper truth that lingers within us, Jesus says “I tell you the truth, everyone who sins is a slave to sin.”

Now, I’ll be honest.  I am not a big fan of the word “sin.”  Too often, I think it is a word that is used by the powerful to shame and control those with less power.  Too often sin is used to point the finger at someone else’s behavior rather than looking at my own failures.  Too often sin, or rather I should say sinlessness is just another thing for us to achieve in our achievement-based, your-value-depends-on-your-successes type society in which we live.

I don’t like the word “sin.”  But I do like the word “brokenness.”  We live in a world of brokenness.  Imagine if that was the word Jesus used, “I tell you the truth, everyone who is broken is a slave to brokenness.”  And we all are broken.  Some of us live with so much pain that we no longer prayer for a long life, but a short one.  Others of us are caught in a endless cycle of believing that the clothes we put on each morning for work or school will somehow make us more valuable and attractive to the people around us.  And then there are those of us who have just simply given up- given up hope in ever overcoming our addiction or discovery meaning in our lives. This is the truth, Jesus says.  And the truth will set you free.

Yeah, but how?  But how does hearing all of this depressing stuff that we are broken people living in a broken world set us free?

I once heard a story about woman who, after attending a worship service, went up to the pastor and said, “Nice sermon pastor.  I liked what you said about God loving us all.”  And then she added this, “But if God really knew who I was, I don’t think he would love me.”  This woman had only heard part of the story that day.  She heard that God loved her, which is a good thing to hear.  It’s not bad.  The problem is that she didn’t believe it…because she hadn’t heard the half of the story.  You see, God speaks two words of truth to us, not just one.  The truthful word of God that she heard was this… “I love you.” But somewhere in the midst of the announcements and the closing hymn, the second word of truth from God got lost in the fray.  She didn’t hear it.  And it sounds like this, “I know who you are.  I know what you’ve done.  I know what grips you and holds you captive.  I know what tortures you in the night hours.”

This woman heard that God loved her but she didn’t believe it because she didn’t the truth about her self.  And it is a painful one to hear, like hearing that your wife is dying and it’s time to say goodbye.  She needed to hear that God knew who she was.  Not that God knew her as just one among the other 7 billion, but that God knew her specifically and her brokenness.

And then Jesus said, “Every who is broken is a slave to brokenness.”  Jesus is saying, “I know who you are.  I know about your life and how messed up it is.”  He puts his finger right on it, right on the infected wound that we all carry with us, because until the puss and the dirt is cleaned out, how can there be any healing?  Until our brokenness is revealed, until the truth about us has been named, how can we believe the words at the end of our worship service – the Lord bless you and keep you.  The Lord’s face shine on you and be gracious to you.  The Lord look upon you with favor and give you peace.

If you abide with Jesus, if you hang around the teachings of Jesus, then you will know the truth.  Two truths, in fact.  The first is that God knows who you are.  God knows your life.  And the second that God loves you beyond measure.  May these truths set us free.  Amen.

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Sunday, October 23 – Sermon on Matthew 22 (34-46)

Matthew 22 (34-46)

Jesus and the religious leaders in Jerusalem have been at it for awhile.  They have been testing and fighting with each other outside the temple in Jerusalem.  On the timeline of Jesus’ life, it is Tuesday of Holy Week.  In just a matter of days, Jesus will break bread with his closest friends at the last supper, he will be betrayed by Judas, and he will be put to death.    So it is Tuesday of Holy week, and Jesus has been debating for hours with these religious leaders.

Notice how Jesus has a habit of giving the Pharisees more than what they ask for.  Last week, we heard the religious leaders asked Jesus a question about life – should we pay taxes to Caesar, the emperor?  A simple yes or no will suffice.  And yet Jesus’ answer contains both life and God. He says, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar and to God what is God’s.”  They were looking for one answer and Jesus gave them two.  They ask a question about life and Jesus brings God into the answer.

This week, we heard the religious leaders ask Jesus a question about God – which is the greatest commandment?  And yet Jesus gives them answer that contains both life and God.  He says, “Well the greatest commandment is ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’”  But then just as everyone is about to turn around and leave, having thought that was his answer, Jesus says, “Wait, there’s more…the second greatest commandment is like the first: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”  Again, they were looking for one answer and Jesus gave them two.  They ask a question about God and Jesus brings life into the answer.

I think what Jesus might be trying to say here is that your faith and your life cannot be lived out separately.  One cannot believe in God and not have an effect on the way they live their life.  And one cannot live their life without it saying what they believe about God.   Faith and life cannot occupy different parts of your life.  Instead, they influence one another.  They say something about each other.

Peter Rollins, one of my favorite theologians, tells a story about a minister.  It is Sunday evening and she is sitting in her house, reading a book.  One of her parishioners knocks on the door.  She opens the door.  He is a big guy.  He is sweating.  It is obvious that he ran all the way to the house.  He is in tears.  He says, “Listen there is a family that lives just down the road.  The guy lost his job in the recession, she is looking after three kids, their mother stays with them.  But they don’t have enough money for their rent.  They’ve got no money at the moment.  And their gonna get kicked out of the house.  Even if they are one day late on their rent, they are just going to get kicked out on the street.  It’s the middle of winter.  We’ve got to do something.  Please, let’s do something.”  So the minister says, “Yes, we will go and we will get some money.”  Just in passing she says, “Oh and how do you know them?”  And he says, “Oh, well, I’m their landlord.”

The religious leaders ask a question about how one lives their life and Jesus brings God into the answer.  The religious leaders ask a question about how to be in relationship with God and Jesus brings how one lives their life into the answer.  Faith and life – they have to be held together, not separate.  And yet, for this landlord, faith and life are divorced.  In this landlord’s faith life, he is concerned for this poor family that doesn’t have enough money to pay the rent and he is desperate to do something.  But in his professional and social life, it is just business as usual.  If you can’t pay the rent, out you go.  Those are the rules.  And so this man is living a divided life.  He worships God and does nice things on the weekends, but come Monday, he steps back into the rat race.  The very thing this man is doing on Monday is the same thing he is concerned about and fighting on Sunday evening.  His faith and his life are divided.  They don’t intersect.  He can’t see how the way he is living out his faith on Sunday is directly connected to the way he is living out his life on Monday morning.

God cannot simply be located in one part of a person’s life.  God is a part of the whole darn thing.  And so when we gather together on Sunday morning to worship God, we don’t do so as a way of separating and protecting ourselves from the world out there.  We gather together to rehearse.  To rehearse worshipping God, so that when these doors open and we step out onto the stage of life, we know our parts, we know our lines.  We know how to worship God out there.  And to love and worship God on Sunday is to love your neighbor on Monday morning.  To love your neighbor on Monday morning is to love God on Monday morning. Later in the gospel of Matthew, Jesus says to his disciples, “When you fed those who were hungry, you fed me.  When you clothed the naked, you clothed me.  When you welcomed the stranger, you welcomed me.”

Truth be told, this landlord is no different from you or I.  In fact he is braver than I.  Because at least he is willing to admit his place in the broken system.  His livelihood, the food he puts on his family’s table depends on people paying the rent on time.  And so he is stuck.  We all are.  Stuck in self-interest.  Self-preservation.  How do I live out my faith and care for my neighbor when my life is on the line too?

Perhaps the place to start is to acknowledge that life and faith cannot be lived out separately.  But they are held together, as Jesus tried to remind these religious leaders.  The place to start is to see that when you leave here this morning God goes with you, calling “shotgun!” for the ride home and jumping in the front seat.  And then when you come back next week, not only do you return with God, but with the successes and failures of each performance during this week in search of both celebration and forgiveness.

Perhaps the place to start is to acknowledge that life and faith cannot be lived out separately.

So tell me, what are you and God doing tomorrow around 9am?

October 9th – Sermon on Matthew 22:1-14 and Psalm 23

Matthew 22:1-14
Psalm 23

I love the TV show Friends.   I love watching it…I love quoting it with my friends…and I love reliving episodes.  In fact I really enjoy an episode, where Joey, the goofball/nutty one of the group, is in London.  He has this huge ridiculous 3D map and he is trying to figure out where he is in London, but when he can’t figure it out, he turns to his pal Chandler and he says, “I know, I’m going to have to go into the map.”  So he puts the map on the ground and steps on it, placing himself in the map of London so that he can find his way.

Our text this week has me feeling the same way.  I just can’t figure out where I am or what’s going on in this story. But I think the only way into a text like this is to remember that for Jesus, this is a parable.  Which means it is sort of like riddle.  The answer isn’t meant to be obvious but it has to sit with you until you have that “ah-ha” moment.  Or as one preacher once put it, a parable is “not a once-and for-all story. It’s a story you can walk around in, a story that wants a response from you—hopes for a response from you—one that changes as you change, so that it is different the tenth time you hear it than it was at the first.” (Barbara Brown Taylor)[1].

So today…we’re going to have to go into the map.  Like Joey, we have to step into this story so that we won’t feel so lost. To step into the story, walk around in it, feeling for the walls and the furniture, looking behind closed doors and under the tables, becoming the characters in the story.  All so that we might encounter its mysteries and find our way through it.

So let’s do that.  Jesus has been arguing with the Pharisees and chief priests for some time now and he decides to throw another parable their way.  There once was a king.  Which right off the bat makes me wonder, is this king supposed to be God in the story?  Hold on to that question.  This king is throwing a wedding banquet for his son.  Things are getting ready and prepared for the party.  It happening at one of the best venues, it’s just over here at the Four Seasons building on the Fair Grounds.  Cooks are getting the food prepped, other staff are organizing the tables; “save the date” cards have already been sent out, and are hanging on people’s refrigerators.  Everyone knows about the event.  Everything is just about set, and all that is needed are the guests. But this king is so rich he can send his own messengers to personally escort the guests to the event.

So these messengers go out to these folks on the A list to inform them that all is ready.  We know who was invited to such a royal event – governors and senators, CEOs and celebrities.  Who knows maybe people like Brad and Angelina, or Justin Beiber were on the list.   Either way, whoever it was, they apparently didn’t want to come to this wedding banquet because they all turned the messengers away.  I wonder why?  Do they not like the king?  Do they not like the king’s son?  So after that happened, then the king sends out more people to go out get these guests.  He says, “Tell them what’s on the menu, maybe that will help.”  I mean people will come to just about anything as long as there is food there, right?   The king’s got delicious pulled pork and beef skewers with a little splash of peanut sauce on them, but still nobody wanted to come.  Some made it seem like they had work to do; yet, others made themselves real clear… they killed those messengers.  They really, really don’t want to go to this wedding.  Enraged and furious, this king goes and wages war on these ungrateful invitees, destroying their homes and their cities.

Once the king is back at the banquet hall, having washed the blood off his hands and from the front of his tux, he tells his messengers to just go invite anyone off the street, anyone – good or bad – who will come to this banquet, eat the food and fill the wedding hall with guests.  This wedding banquet must go on!  Which has to make you wonder….what kind of preservatives is this king using in his food?  I mean seriously, the pulled pork and beef skewers were ready at the beginning of the story, and since then the king has sent out two sets of messengers, waged a couple of wars and burnt down a couple of cities.  How long does this food last?  You’d think it would cold and spoiled by now.  Anyways…people from all over start flooding to this banquet.  Think about it, how often do the regulars from off the street ever get to eat with the king?  Never!

So farmers are jumping off their combines, men and women in suits are running out the doors of Federated, workers are coming out of Jostens, the homeless leave their park benches, construction workers are dropping their tools. Nursing home residents, bank staff, hair stylists, bartenders…everybody is going to this banquet.    And now the wedding banquet is up and running.  The bar is open; the dance floor is full.  Trays of food are being passed around.  Everything is going great until the king notices one person in jean shorts and a tank top – certainly inappropriate attire for such a royal wedding.

Suddenly the music comes to a screeching stop, conversation quiets, and everyone turns to looks at this underdressed man.  Which then makes me wonder, what was everyone else wearing?  I mean they came off the streets and straight from work too.  The text says they had on wedding robes.  Did the king provide these and this one person just decided to disrespect the king by not wearing one or did everyone else carry their wedding robes around in their back pocket and purses waiting for this day when they win the lottery, getting to go to a royal wedding?  Whatever the case, this guy didn’t have a lot to say for his attire and so the king continued his pattern of violence by having this guy thrown out into the darkness of the night, left to walk alone back to whatever it is he calls home.   The end.

When you walk around in a parable, you see all of these threads hanging down that you can start to pull on.  Maybe you wonder who the king is supposed to be?  Or why the invited guests do not want to come?  Perhaps you are drawn toward the fact that this food must have been kept under a heat lamp for quite sometime.  Or maybe you see yourself as one of the characters in the story, like a guest invited off the street, or one of the guest who turned down the king’s invitation.  Heck, maybe you saw yourself as the bride.  Which by the way, where was she?  Where is the bride during this whole story?  It’s hard to have a wedding story when one partner is missing.  You can take any of these threads and start pulling on it to open up this parable but the thread that catches my eye the most is this poor character who wore the wrong clothes to the wedding banquet.  Who is this guy? The reason he catches my eye is because I think all of us can relate to him.  We know the feeling of being rejected, or at least the fear of being rejected.

In the fall of my sophomore year of high school, I was watching a school soccer game and just as the game was ending, a friend came up to me and asked, “Hey, are you going to Claire’s house after the game?”  Immediately, my stomach sunk.  I hadn’t heard that Claire was having  people over to her house, and so I had to give this painful response, “Oh, ummm….no, I’m not.  I wasn’t invited.”  To which he awkwardly said, “Oh, um, sorry,” and then jumped down the bleacher stairs to join everyone else who were headed to the party.  Riding in the car with my parents home that Friday night,  one of the darkest nights of my life, feeling completely rejected.  Over the next month or so, I noticed my friends didn’t call me as much.  I also started sensing an awkward feeling whenever I tried to join my group of friends in the hallway or at lunch.  Eventually, it became clear: these friends had decided that I was too annoying or too whatever that they didn’t want to be friends anymore.  And so I was left alone.  Cast out into the darkness of life to blindly search for new friends, a feeling that too many middle school and high school students know so well.

I share this story because I think we all know what it feels like to be this guy at the wedding banquet.  Though our stories are different, each of us know the feeling of being rejected and thrown out.  Mine happened when I was a sophomore in high school.  When was yours?  Perhaps you know the deep ache of rejection that comes from not being touched by your spouse in months or years.    Others of us know the rejection and isolation of living alone with an illness, where no one comes around anymore because they just don’t know what to say.  Or perhaps some of us here know how rejecting it can feel to lose a job and then struggle to find work.  I am drawn to this man who is thrown out into darkness because so many of know how dark life can get.  Which begs the question: does this mean that we are that man in this story?

Maybe…but what if the man who has been thrown into outer darkness is God?  Psalm 23 reads, “Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil;
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff—
they comfort me.”  This psalm speaks of a God who meets us in the valley of darkness and leads us through it.  And the only way for God to know the way through is if God had already gone through it God’s self.  What if the man in this story who has been thrown into outer darkness is God?  For it is God who goes into darkness before us so as to find a way through it.  It is God who goes to the cross and finds a way through it.  Even though we walk through the darkest valley, it is God who meets us there.  God knows away through the darkest valley of rejection because God has already been cast out into the darkness and found a way through it.

Let’s read together Psalm 23 so that it imprints on our hearts, so that it washes over us, and so that we just might be able to believe again in God who goes with us on this journey.

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures;
he leads me beside still waters;
he restores my soul.
He leads me in right paths
for his name’s sake.

Even though I walk through the darkest valley,
I fear no evil;
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff—
they comfort me.

You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
my whole life long.

Just as we have gone into this story to feel our way around it, to get a sense of what is there, we find that in Jesus’ parable we hear the story of one who has gone into the darkness ahead of us.  One who has felt out all of the sharp corners and steep ledges, one who has discovered the pathways of this dark valley so that when people like you and I encounter dark valleys of rejection in our own life, there might be a hand for us to hold and shepherd us on through.

Amen.

October 2, 2011 – Sermon on Isaiah 5:1-11and Matthew 21:33-46

Isaiah 5:1-7

Matthew 21:33-46

For those of you who have ever been on or sent a loved one along on a trip with a school or a church, then you know the typical rules that go along with such a trip: no drinking or drugs, no weapons, and no sex.  If any of the rules are broken, then those involved are sent home at their family’s expense.

For those of you who have ever been on or sent a loved one along on a trip with a school or a church, then you know the typical rules that go along with such a trip: no drinking or drugs, no weapons, and no sex.  If any of the rules are broken, then those involved are sent home at their family’s expense.

Years ago, a pastor told me a story about when she was on a youth mission trip with her church.  They were hundreds of miles from home and they were just nearing the end of a fantastic week when, in a matter of moments, all of the joy and connection that filled everyone’s hearts came to a screeching halt.  One of these rules was broken.  The guilty party was a teenage boy.  The offense: smoking marijuana.  It almost sounds like the game of Clue: Mrs. Peacock – in the library – with the revolver.  Only this time it was a16 year-old named Joel – behind the church – with a joint.

Joel was the one on the trip who consistently pushed the boundaries and bent the rules and now he had put this pastor in a hard situation.  Not only is it hard because it has the potential to ruin such a fantastic trip.  But it is also hard because you’ve come to love Joel over the course of the week, even though he pushes your buttons everyday.  He’s funny and he worked really hard at the soup kitchen.  But now he has put her in a difficult position and she has a terribly hard decision to make.

So what do you do?  It’s the last day of the trip.  You are heading home tomorrow morning, bright and early.  And you find Joel behind the church smoking marijuana.  Do you offer up forgiveness to Joel and let him stay with the group for the remainder of the trip?  Or do you let the consequences of Joel’s actions play out?  Do you send him home immediately at his family’s expense, like the rules say?

This pastor chose the latter.  Joel had pushed and stretched too many boundaries that week.  She had already tried forgiveness and second chances.  And nothing worked with this young man.  What else could she do?  So she packed Joel up into the church van, drove him to the nearest Greyhound station, where she picked up the $150 bus ticket that his parents had purchased over the phone and she put him on a bus headed home.  She cried all the way back to the mission site, she said, wondering if she had made the right decision.  After every got home, she looked for him at church the next Sunday and the Sunday after that…and the Sunday after that… all to no avail until eventually she gave up and tried to let the sour memory simply fade away.  This pastor had to make a judgment call when confronted with a situation in which rules were broken.  She decided to let the consequences play out because as painful as it was, she thought it was in Joel’s best interest.  And it broke her heart to do it.

Judgment is hard.  It is hard on those who give it out.  And it is hard on those who receive it.  Our texts today from Isaiah and Matthew both focus on judgment too.  But for them, it isn’t the judgment of a pastor, but the judgment of God.  A tough topic indeed.

In Isaiah, we hear a love song that goes painfully awry.  Isaiah sings a song of love about a vineyard owner and his vineyard.  God is the vineyard owner; God’s people the vineyard.  It is a song of poetic imagery for the intimate relationship between God and God’s people.  Listen to the care that God gives to God’s vineyard, God’s own people: Isaiah verse 2 reads “He dug it and cleared it of stones, and planted it with choice vines (the best for God’s beloved!); he built a watchtower in the midst of it (to protect it from danger!), and hewed out a wine vat in it (a place for this vineyard to live out it’s purpose!).”  The vineyard, God’s beloved people, is given God’s very best care in order to be a fruitful vineyard.  God’s gives God’s very best efforts to God’s people in hopes for the best possible future.  And yet…what God hoped would happen with this vineyard didn’t.  What does it mean to say that God expected something to happen and it didn’t?  What kind of a god is this?  God expected it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes.  Even after God’s best divine efforts, things can still go wrong for God’s beloved people.

So God cries out in verse 4, “What more was there to do for my vineyard that I have not done it?  When I expected it to yield grapes, why did it yield wild grapes?”  So often we want to ask God why bad things happen and now God is turning the question on us, “After all of the care and love that I have given you, I expected grapes but you gave me spoiled grapes.  Why?  I expect justice out of you and instead you just kill each other.  I expect righteousness and love for your neighbor and yet your neighbor stills cries out in neglect.  Why, O my people?  After all my love for you, why the rotten grapes?”  And so as the song in Isaiah continues, what else was there for God, the beloved vineyard owner, to do with his beloved vineyard but to tearfully take down the fence, pull out the vines, and let it be over grown.  A hard and heartbreaking act of judgment on God’s part.  But what else was there for God to do?

And now after hearing that hard word of judgment from God in Isaiah, there is no rest for us in Matthew either.  “Listen to another parable.  There was a landowner who planted a vineyard put a fence around it, dug a wine press, and built a watchtower.”  Could this be the same vineyard, the same image for God’s beloved people that we heard in Isaiah?  But this time the vineyard, God’s beloved people are held captive by the tenants of the land.  These tenants thwart all of the vineyard owner’s best efforts to collect his harvest from his beloved vineyard.  Once again, God, the vineyard owner’s, expectations do not play out.  What God expects to happen doesn’t.  Slaves are sent to collect the harvest and they end up beaten and killed.  More slaves are sent and their fate is the same.  Finally, the vineyard owner sends his son to collect the harvest, thinking “surely they will respect my son,” and he is beaten and killed. Even after God’s best efforts to preserve the well-being of all parties, things go wrong.  So, as the parable implies, God will bring judgment o these wicked tenants and they will face an ugly future.  For what else was there to do?  Despite God’s best efforts of care, things went wrong.  Why did the tenants kill the slaves and son, keeping the vineyard, God’s beloved, for themselves?  Why, O my people?  Why the rotten grapes?

I’ll say it again, judgment is hard and what makes it even harder is when it is the judgment of God.  At first glance these texts, paint an image of God that is violent and angry, when in fact these tough texts do not portray an angry and cold-hearted god, but instead a god who has fallen in love with God’s own people.  And that’s the thing about love.  It isn’t easy because the one’s we love and how they act have an affect on us.  And that’s how it is with God and God’s beloved people.  God’s people have an affect on God.

Our God is a lover.  One who never stops being in love.  As we see in Isaiah, God cares for you, God’s beloved vineyard, as a lover cares for a spouse – giving choice vines and a watchtower to protect you.  And so when, despite this care, we produce rotten grapes of injustice and neglect for our neighbors – well, God has a hard word to say about that.  And as we see in Matthew, God cares about how you, God’s beloved vineyard, are treated.  When people hold you captive through injustice and neglect – well, God has a hard word to say about that too.  Our God is so in love with you that what you do in your life matters to God.  It has an effect on God.  God loves you so deeply that God is affected by what you do.  And so because of that, God has something to say to you about your life.  Sometimes it is a word of hope and encouragement.  A word of praise and celebration.  And sometimes it is a harsh word of judgment.  A word of tough love.  A word that says, “Stop what you are doing.  It is not good for you or for the world.”  Sometimes, God drives us to the bus station, God puts us on a bus for a long journey home, and then cries, as the bus pulls out of sight, wondering if it was the right decision.

God will not remain unaffected by how we treat one another.  What you do matters to God because what is done to you matters to God.

God wants for you, God’s beloved vineyard, God’s beloved people, the best possible future.  And when things begin to go south, despite God’s greatest divine efforts, what else can God do but speak a hard word of judgment? The only reason God judges is because God loves.  God is not an icy-cold and angry judge.  But God is at times a heart-broken lover who has run out of options.

I don’t fully understand God’s judgment or how it works.  But I do know this: as Old Testament scholar Terence Fretheim once said – “How tragic it would be for you and for the world if God did not care enough to judge you and me for the sake of the best possible future.”[1]

Oh, and as for Joel.  That youth who got sent home on the Greyhound bus.  I don’t know if he ever fully returned to church, but he did stop by one day.  About four years later, he showed up in the pastor’s office.  In his Navy uniform.  And he told her, ‘Thanks.”  “Thanks for putting me on that bus. No one had ever showed me tough love and held me accountable for my actions before.  It changed my life.”

Indeed, “how tragic it would be for you and for the world if God did not care enough to judge you and me for the sake of the best possible future.”

Amen.


September 25, 2011 – Sermon on Philippians 2:1-13

Philippians 2:1-13

 

Philippians is a letter that the Apostle Paul wrote to a congregation he started in city of Philippi, located in the northeastern part of Greece.  When Paul wrote this letter he was in prison and believed that he would soon be killed by the Roman Empire for living out the teachings of Jesus.  Which means, for Paul, this is a farewell letter.  These are possibly the last words he will ever be able to say to this community of people.  And Paul writes this letter the way I think many of us would if we were face to face with our own death.  When faced with death, we start to open up our hearts and share the things that we’ve always wanted to say but never had the courage to.  Young parents diagnosed with terminal cancer will record videos on the things they always wanted to tell and teach their children.  Spouses or siblings will sometimes apologize for something that fractured the relationship years ago.  When you think you are about to die, you cut through the meaningless chatter of life and you start to say the things that you think people need to hear.  Which is what Paul is doing here in this letter.  In this farewell letter to the Philippians, Paul is saying those important final words that he thinks this community needs to hear.

 

In the small section of the letter we heard today, Paul has these great one-liners of guidance and encouragement to the people of Philippi.  Do nothing from selfish ambition.  Regard others as better than yourselves.  Don’t worry about your own interests, but be concerned for the interests of others.  He shows them what it looks like to live as a disciple of Jesus, which is what Paul hopes for this community.  That they will live as disciples of Jesus by giving to others rather than getting for themselves.

 

But then, there is one line that sort of throws everything off track, at least it does for me.  Paul writes, “Therefore…work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.”  Salvation.  How do you hear that word?  I think most of us hear that word salvation and we think about going to heaven or going to hell when we die.  Have you been saved, people will ask as you wander past a booth at the county fair.  Are you going to heaven when you die?  Are you in or are you out?  If Paul understands salvation to be about going to heaven, then “work out your own salvation,” seems to mean we have to earn our way there.  It means that when Paul tells us to be concerned for others and to not act selfishly, it is simply for the purpose of making sure we as individuals get into heaven.  In the religion world, it is called, “works righteousness” meaning that you have to be come a good enough person, do enough good works, so that God will accept you into heaven when death settles over you.  “Works righteousness” is something that tormented Martin Luther most of his life because he felt he could never be good enough to earn his way into heaven.

 

When we hear the word salvation I think most of us think about going to heaven. But here is the problem: the word salvation when used in the Bible is almost never about the afterlife.[1]

 

In Scripture, salvation is almost always about an experience in this world.  In Scripture, salvation means being liberated.[2]  Being freed from that which weighs you down.  In the story of Exodus, when the Israelites were held as slaves in Egypt, the word salvation was used when Moses helped to lead them out of slavery, when they were released from the bondage of Pharaoh’s grasp.  The Israelites experienced salvation in this life when they were liberated from Pharaoh.  Sometimes in Scripture, salvation means being rescued from danger or that which threatens us.[3]  All throughout the Psalms, salvation is about being rescued.  Rescued from the danger of enemies.  The danger of illness.  Psalm 69 says, “I am lowly and in pain; let your salvation, O God, protect me.”  Save me from my pain, Lord, it says.  Now.  Here.  Let me experience salvation in being freed from pain.  Not in the afterlife, but today, Lord.

 

Do you see how the understanding of the word salvation has been distorted?  It has gone from being about experiencing liberation from whatever threatens us in this life to being simply about what happens to us when we die.  If we can restore that Biblical understanding of what it means to be saved, to experience salvation, we come to learn that when Paul writes, “work out your own salvation,” Paul is not saying, “Go and be a good enough person so that the God who lives in the sky will let you into heaven.”  Instead, Paul is saying, “Go and put the interests of others before your own because that is the way to liberation, freedom, healing, fullness of life, salvation – here and now.  In this life.”   Go and put the interests of others before your own because that is the way to liberation AND because that is where God promises to be found.  God does not live in the sky; God promises to be found in and among us.  Here and now, in the ways we work together to bring about salvation here on earth.  Paul says, “Work out your own salvation … for it is God who is at work in you.” And that word you…is plural.  Meaning it is not just about you as an individual.  It is about you and the person your sitting next to.  Or the person in front of you, or behind you.  It is about God being at work in and between us – in our relationships.  In this very community.

 

I want to tell you a true story about two women.  We will call them Jane and Elizabeth.  When I met Jane, she told me that she didn’t really understand the Bible and that she didn’t always understand what was happening at church.  Which is how must of us feel a lot of the time.  I couldn’t help but think that Jane has spent most of her life feeling inadequate when it comes to God.  Not smart enough to be a part of the church; not worthy enough to do God’s work.  But then, in the midst of our conversation Jane started to share a story about her neighbor, Elizabeth. Elizabeth was a person who, because of a disability, was physically incapable of washing her own body.  When Elizabeth’s body wasn’t washed, she would break out in rashes and sores all over.  And so every couple of days or so, Jane went over to Elizabeth’s house to wash her body – removing the stench and bacteria and infection that was threatening Elizabeth’s body.  Elizabeth wouldn’t say much to Jane, probably because she was embarrassed.  But over time, Jane started to receive hand made gifts in the mail.  Blankets and quilts for her and her children.  This was Elizabeth’s way of saying “thank you.”

 

Remember that the word salvation means to be rescued from danger.  To be rescued from that which threatens you.  Elizabeth was threatened by her rashes and sores, because she wasn’t able to wash her self.  Jane was threatened by her own insecurities and her own lack of self-worth.  Jane washed Elizabeth’s body.  Elizabeth sent Jane gifts saying “thank you,what you do matters to me.”  And together they have saved each other’s lives.  Together, they rescued one another from the dangers that threatened them.  They were working out their own salvation together…and it was God who was at work in and among them.

 

But what saddens me about this story is that Jane had no clue.  As she shared this story with me, she had no idea that she was both doing and receiving the work of God.  She never knew that even though she didn’t understand the Bible and even though she didn’t go to church all that often, God was still at work in her and her relationship with Elizabeth.

 

In Paul’s farewell letter to the Philippians – where he wants to tell them the most important stuff because it might be his last chance – he says, “work out your own salvation…for it is God who is at work in you.”  And he says the same to us.  Work out your own salvation.  But do not do it so that you can get to heaven when you die.  Have no fear, God will take care of you in your time of death.  But work out your salvation because people are in need of liberation here and now!  People need to experience salvation here and now!  Salvation cannot wait.  [4]We can see this in the Lord’s Prayer we will pray in a couple minutes.  We say, “Lord, your kingdom come, your will be done ON EARTH, as it is in heaven.”  We need the will of God to be done here on earth now, as it already is in heaven.  Salvation cannot wait.  So go and work out your salvation.  Go and bring liberating and healing and rescuing salvation to the people you encounter in your work, in your home, on the street, the people in this life, in this world.   For, I promise you, God is already at work in your life and salvation cannot wait. AMEN


[1] Marcus Borg, Speaking Christian, p. 39.

[2] Ibid., p. 39.

[3] Ibid., p. 44.