Sunday, October 26th, 2014 – Sermon on Psalm 46, Romans 3, John 8

Psalm 46
1 God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. 2 Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea; 3 though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble with its tumult. (Selah) 4 There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy habitation of the Most High. 5 God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved; God will help it when the morning dawns. 6 The nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter; he utters his voice, the earth melts. 7 The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge. (Selah) 8 Come, behold the works of the Lord; see what desolations he has brought on the earth. 9 He makes wars cease to the end of the earth; he breaks the bow, and shatters the spear; he burns the shields with fire. 10 “Be still, and know that I am God! I am exalted among the nations, I am exalted in the earth.” 11 The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge. (Selah)

Romans 3:19-28
19 Now we know that whatever the law says, it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. 20 For “no human being will be justified in his sight” by deeds prescribed by the law, for through the law comes the knowledge of sin. 21 But now, apart from law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets, 22 the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction, 23 since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; 24 they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25 whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith. He did this to show his righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over the sins previously committed; 26 it was to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous and that he justifies the one who has faith in Jesus. 27 Then what becomes of boasting? It is excluded. By what law? By that of works? No, but by the law of faith. 28 For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law.

John 8:31-36
31 Then Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; 32 and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” 33 They answered him, “We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean by saying, “You will be made free’?” 34 Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. 35 The slave does not have a permanent place in the household; the son has a place there forever. 36 So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.

First off, happy Reformation Day. As a quick reminder of what the Reformation was… 500 years ago people in the church lived under this oppressive system – one in which people were never sure of God or of God’s mercy.[1] It was a system in which people were told that they had to climb the spiritual ladder up to God by being really, really good and sinless people. But if that failed, well, they could cough up a little extra money here and there for the church, then they could also climb their way up to God that way. Make note of the direction of things – up. The message was YOU climb up to God. God will not leave God’s thrown. You are the one who must climb up to God. Which leads to us being either spiritually proud and thinking we are doing so much better than everyone else. Or it leads to spiritual despair, thinking you can never ever climb high enough. And the church took advantage of that; the church was the place that told you whether you had climbed high enough or not. Whether you were in or out.

Basically, the church had become this corrupt system that was no longer preaching the gospel of grace and forgiveness, but rather was welding power over everyone for the sake of control and wealth. In the midst of this was a monk named Martin Luther, who, under the weight of this oppressive church, tried and tried and tried to be holy and sinless enough to be worthy of God. But then the reading from Romans 3 spoke to him – we are saved by grace, not by our works. Which is exactly not what the church had been preaching. So then, Martin Luther, along with others, decided to protest the way the church was by nailing the 95 theses to the door of the church. Basically, the 95 theses can be summed up like this: the Church is in bad shape. It’s a mess and we need to get rid of some things. We need to reform…

And so that’s what he and others worked towards. They re-formed the church. And the whole world changed because of it.

In light of this, this history of the Reformation and in light of these texts before us, three words are standing out to me on this Reformation Sunday. Sin. Truth. Presence.

Sin. Truth. Presence. Those are the three things I want to talk about today.

First one – sin. In our reading from Paul today, Paul says, “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” All have sinned and have fallen short of the glory of God. And when I hear that, all I want to say it, “Oh thank God.” All of us. Every single one of us has fallen short of God’s glory. Which means, as Paul says, there is no distinction between any of us. Which means that all of us are on the same level. We all are in the same boat. All in need of God’s grace. Which is such good news, right? Because that is so not how we live our lives. Most of the time, we compare ourselves to everyone else and either think how much better we are or we worry about how much better everyone else is than we are.

So, we’ve been watching a lot of the Okee Dokee Brothers in our house lately. And if you don’t know who the Okee Dokee brothers are, they are these two guys who play guitar and banjo and they write music and make videos for kids. Songs about riding in a canoe and hiking in the woods. And their videos are all about how they go on journeys down the river and up mountains and how they just write cute little songs for kids along the way. And they are ridiculously cute and funny. Trust me, I know…my wife won’t stop telling me. And so, seriously, all week, I found myself thinking, “The Okee Dokee Brothers must just have the perfect life. They are so funny and cute and every one loves them.” I was seriously wanting to be them. Do you do that? Do you look at people and are just like, “Oh they just have the perfect life.” But then we hear these words from Paul that all have fallen short of the glory of God, and it just sort of slaps me back to reality. And I am reminded – Oh yeah, even the Okee Dokee Brothers fall short. Even they mess things up. When the cameras and recording equipment are off, they probably fight about money and music. Or something. All of us fall short of the glory of God; some people are just better at hiding their sin than others. That’s the message that Martin Luther needed to hear, right? Martin, don’t beat yourself up. None of us are good enough.

I don’t know about you, but that is such good news because that sets me free. Free to not compare myself to other people. Free to be honest about who I am. Which leads to the next word.

Truth. In our gospel, Jesus says, “If you continue in my word, you will know the truth and the truth will set you free.” This past weekend, I had the great joy of officiating at a wedding. And it is so easy at weddings to get caught up in all the joy and happiness and celebration and love. And you find yourself quoting the Beatles a lot – all you need is love. And then on top of that, there is almost always that passage from 1 Corinthians 13 – the love chapter. 4Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant 5or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; 6it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. 7It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

And as I was writing the wedding sermon, I found myself saying, “All you need is your love for each other. And what does that love look like – patience, kindness, not envy, not boasting, not arrogant or rude.” But then my friend, Ken, who edits all of my sermons, said to me, “Yeah, but they will never live up to that. They won’t always be patient, or kind. They will at times be envious and arrogant. That’s just human nature.” And that’s completely true isn’t it? But we are not used to saying that at weddings, are we? But it is the truth! And you know, it is a truth that sets us free. Free from feeling like in order for our love to be real, we have to always measure up to that highest standard of love. And then my friend Ken said this beautiful thing. He said, “They will never be able to love each other like that. But God will. God will be patient with them. God will be kind to them. God will be slow to anger with them. But most importantly, God will love them and be with them.” Which is such truthful, good news at a wedding, right? To be able to say, “Look, you are not always going to be very good at loving each other thing. In fact, some days, you won’t be able to stand the sight of each other. But God will love you at that moment and will help you through.” Martin Luther could have used truth spoken like that. Martin, you will never feel like you’ve been good enough. You are just like the rest of us. So stop trying. God will love you, even with all your failures. It is that kind of truth – a truth that says God will be with you even when you don’t like who you are – it is that kind of truth that sets us free. God will be with you even then.

Which brings me to that third word. Presence. In our Psalm 46, we heard the word, “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.” God is present. As in – here. As in – not up there. The psalm even has this incredible line that has stuck with me all week – God is in the midst of the city. Think about that…God is in the midst of the city. Note the direction. If God is in the city then God has come down. Remember what direction everyone was trying to move in, back before the Reformation. Up. But this text says we’ve got it all wrong. It is not us who are going up to God; it is God who is coming down to us. God is coming to meet us. In the city. In the town. On the streets. In the middle of this life.

God was in the midst of our city this week. I didn’t get to see it, but I heard about it. Many of you know that a small group of us gather at Olivia’s on Tuesday afternoons. Our conversations together is usually pretty random. This past week was no different. But after I left, our waitress (who is almost always the same person) came over to the table in tears and said she took care of our bill that day. She calls our group Tuesday church. She can’t go to church on Sundays, so she admitted to listening to us each week. And for her, that was her church. And this past week, in listening to us, she said that she realized that she made the right decision in leaving an abusive relationship down in Texas and in moving up here. Now, let me be clear, I’m not trying to pin a rose on us and showing off how we brought God to someone. Sometimes we talk about God, and sometimes we don’t. Most of the time we just talk about life. How sick or busy or frustrated we are. I don’t have a clue what we said that gave her a message from God, but she received it. And as one person who was there put it, it was like God showed up to all of us, very clearly. And so God was in the midst of the city. In Olivia’s. Through a random conversation.

God is in the midst of the city. God is here with us. That’s the message of the cross. That God would come down to be human with us; that God would show up in the foolishness and weakness of the cross. That God would be present with us in time of trouble. When we are suffering. And that’s a message Martin Luther could have used early on. Martin Luther always believed God was against him. When in fact, God wasn’t against him, God was with him; God for him.

Sin. We all are burdened by it. We all fall short of the glory of God. And thank God for that. Because it means we can no longer place ourselves above anyone else. Or below them. And that is truth that sets all of us free. And when we are free from worrying about ourselves all the time, we can finally look up and see the presence of God not high up on a throne. But here, in the midst of the city. God with us. Bringing grace and mercy and love to all those in need. Which is all of us.

Now, those are things that can continue to re-form us still, even to this day. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[1] http://www.odysseynetworks.org/on-scripture-the-bible/reformation-now-dismantling-walls-today-psalm-46/

Sunday, October 19th, 2014 – Sermon on Matthew 22:15-22

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

Over the past couple of weeks, we’ve been working our way through the gospel of Matthew, listening to the parables that Jesus speaks to the religious temple leaders in Jerusalem. Remember he’s torn the temple apart and confronted them with these parables that criticize and judge them for the ways in which they either ignore or hold hostage the kingdom of God.

Well, they’ve started to figure things out. That Jesus is speaking about them and threatening their temple business practices. And we can see their reaction in the very first line of our gospel reading for today: Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap Jesus in what he said.

Jesus has gathered quite a following of people – a mob of protestors if you will – and the rich and powerful don’t like mobs of protestors because they threaten the status quo. So the Pharisees are going to try and trick Jesus into saying something that will turn everyone – this mob – against him. So they send their disciples to Jesus. The Pharisees have disciples just as Jesus does. And that was their first move – sending in people would seem less threatening to Jesus. It’s just the disciples of the Pharisees, the students…they don’t carry any real power or threat.

And then it says they brought the Herodians as well. Well, who are the Herodians? Now a little background will be helpful to us. Remember that at this time, Israel – both the land and the people – are under the control of the Roman Empire. Rome rules all. Now, how do you think the Israelites feel about that? Not good! In fact, it is like they are enslaved again in Egypt. But the Roman Empire has appointed King Herod to be King of the Jews. Which means King Herod is not so opposed to Rome – in fact, he and his supporters (the Herodians) support Rome occupying Israel.

And so, every year, the Israelites have to pay a tax to Rome which helped pay Rome to continue to have power over Israel. So, imagine that China takes control of the U.S. and then every year, you have to pay a tax to China – which continues to keep them in power over you. Few people would want to pay that tax. But, if China appointed you as the President of the U.S….well, you might not be so opposed to China.

So, the Herodian Jews and the Pharisee Jews don’t like each other. But the one thing they could agree on – their distaste for this man named Jesus. So the disciples of the Pharisees and the Herodians come to Jesus to ask him a question. But first, they sort of butter him up a bit. “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality.

You ever have someone try to butter you up a bit before setting a trap for you? And you can smell it right away, can’t you? Suddenly, your enemy is really nice to you and you know they just want something from you. “Mom, you know I love you, right? And you’re the best mom in the whole world, right?”

So they ask Jesus a question about this tax: “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?”

And now the trap is set. Jesus can’t win this one, because if he says, “Yes, it is lawful to pay the taxes to Rome” then the Pharisees and likely Jesus’ own followers will turn against him. Because they hate this tax and how could it be lawful to pay taxes to those who have control over you. But if Jesus says, “No, it is not lawful to pay taxes to the Emperor,” then he would offend the Herodians and have the entire weight of the Roman Empire come down on him as treasonous political agitator.

I mean, it would be like if Angie Jensen and Jan Nelson, both presidents of our congregations, came up to me and ask, “Which church do you like better? Aurora or Trinity?” It’s a lose/lose situation, right?

So, what’s a guy to do? Jesus is stuck. Well…there is this saying out there. Sometimes you can find it on a bumper sticker. “When given only two options, choose the third.”

Jesus asks them for a coin used to pay the tax – notice Jesus doesn’t have a coin. And so they show him a denarius (worth about a day’s wage) and he asks, “Whose head and what title are on the coin?”

And they say, “The Emperor’s.” So Jesus responds, “Therefore, give to the Emperor what is the Emperor’s.” The coins has his face on them, then just give him back his little coins. And then Jesus adds, “And give to God what is God’s.” And then they were amazed and they went away.

Now, what are we to do with this? What does this mean for us? Here and now?

Some of us will hear this and say, “Ah yes, separation of church and state. Give to the Emperor (the government) what is the Emperor’s, and give to God what is God’s and don’t let them cross. When you are at dinner don’t talk about religion and politics. Don’t bring up Jesus when you are talking about policy and laws and don’t bring up policy and laws when you are worshipping Jesus.”

I recently met a new friend and he was sharing with me why he doesn’t go to church. He said, “Because I just don’t want politics in with my religion. I grew up with too much of that and they should be separate. Politics and religion are two separate things and they need to stay separate.”

Other might say that it means it doesn’t matter how you spend your money or who you give it to, as long as you have Jesus in your heart. Don’t talk about money in the church, because money belongs in the other part of my life, not my faith life. [1]

But you know I don’t think that is what this text is trying to say. Because here is the thing: Jesus makes a point that everyone in that time would have picked up on and yet it is easy for us to miss since we did not grow up in Jesus’ time. And it centers on that coin. On this particular Roman coin, it has the head of the Roman Emperor – Tiberius. Not unusual. We have head of Presidents on our money. But what’s the title on there? On this particular coin are the words, “Tiberius Caesar, august son of the divine Augustus and high priest.” Tiberius, son of the divine. You see, Roman Emperors had a special title: son of God.

As a Jew, you are not to have any other gods, and you certainly are not to carry around any graven images of such gods. And here, they are the ones carrying around coins with the Emperor’s image on it. Not Jesus. They are the ones who are breaking two of the commandments. They are the hypocrites. You see Jesus has turned the tables on them. They try to trap Jesus but Jesus traps them.

And then Jesus says to them, ‘Give to the Emperor what is the Emperor’s”. If the emperor’s head is stamped on that coin, then it belong to him.” But then Jesus adds, ” and give to God what is God’s”. Immediately, they would have made the connection. The Emperor’s image is stamped on this coin…but where is God’s image stamped?

On them. On you. On the human beings. When God first made humanity, God made humankind in God’s image. You were made in the image of God. Did you know that? Did you know that you are what God kind of looks like? When you look in a mirror you are getting a glimpse at what God looks like. When a child asks you, “What does God look like?”, you can truthfully say to them, “Well, God looks a little like you.” The image of God has been stamped on you. You are made in the image of God.

And so when Jesus says, “Give to God what is God’s”, what he is saying is give your entire life to God.

Which means that no matter where you go, you are always carrying the image of God with you. I was just talking with a woman the other day who works for a Christian school and she said that she has to be careful about the kind of events that she participates in and attends, because as the school says, “Wherever you go, you represent us.” And sometimes, you’ll hear businesses say that – you represent the face of this business so be on your best behavior. But has anyone ever told you that wherever you go, you represent the face of God? That you bring the image of God with you. So when you go to work, you bring the image of God. When you go to school, you carry the image of God with you. When you go to the grocery store, when you go to the coffee shop, when you walk in the voting booth – you bring the image of God with you. Which isn’t to say, “Watch out! You better behave!” But rather it is to say, “this is who you are. All the time. You are one who carries the image of God with them. So let you life reflect that.”

So, I don’t think Jesus is saying keep faith and politics separate. I don’t think Jesus is saying keep faith and money separate. I don’t think you can keep them separate. I think Jesus is saying you can’t separate faith from anything, because our faith matters in every single thing we do. Why? Because you carry the image of God with you into every thing that you do.

Think of all the labels that we give people in our everyday life – think of all the words we use to identify people, even if it is in our own heads. In school, it might be words like: nerd, preppy, band geeks, jocks, hipsters, druggies. At work it might be: lazy, suck up, know-it-all. Or maybe even more painful words: stupid, ugly, fat, arrogant, selfish. Well, today, you all at the end of worship, get a reminder of the original label that was first stamped on to you. A label that God gave you. A label that says you are made in the image of God. And so, I invite you to take the sticker that you will receive, and when you get home, place it on the mirror in your bathroom. So that every time you look at yourself, you can be reminded of this promise from God. And then, go and live your life this week, knowing that you and every single person you meet carry with them that very same label: Made in the Image of God. And may that guide all the parts of your life. Amen.

[1] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2201

Sunday, October 12th, 2014 – God the Doorman and Impostor Syndrome – A Sermon on Matthew 22:1-14

Matthew 22:1-14

1 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. 4 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.”

Okay. Quick review. Jesus is in the temple in Jerusalem. He’s been causing trouble and stirring the pot, acting like he knows what’s what, and the temple authorities don’t like it. In fact, they hate it. They’d arrest Jesus if they could, but they are a little afraid that that might come back to bite them. So Jesus has been speaking to these guys in three parables. Today, we heard the third parable. Jesus says the kingdom of Heaven is like a king who host a wedding banquet for his son. So that’s the scene. A wedding banquet. The King sends out the invitations – presumably to all the awesome and royally rich folks. But they don’t show up. So, he sends his slaves out with the menu to all the invited guests, trying to entice them in: Look, there’s going to be steak like you’ve never tasted before and wine that never stops flowing. Please come to the wedding. But those invited ignored the slaves. Some went back to work on their farms; others to the family business. Oh yeah, and others just went ahead and killed all the slaves.

So, naturally, the king was pretty ticked off – with his slaves being killed and all. So, he rallies the troops, sends them back into the city…to what? Oh, to murder all the murderers and burn down the whole city, of course.

Then he says to his slaves (which tells us he had plenty), “Go into the streets (the streets that are presumably in chaos since the city is burning down)…go into the streets and invite all the people you find – both good and bad – and invite them to the wedding. So the slaves did and suddenly the banquet hall is full! Gee…I wonder why? Who knows what he would have done if people denied him and his party a second time.

But wait, the fun doesn’t stop there. The king enters the banquet hall to bask in the joy of essentially forcing people to either come to the party or die, and then he sees a man at the wedding banquet who isn’t wearing a wedding robe. “How did you get in here without a wedding robe?” And the guy had nothing to say. So the kings tells his servants to tie the guy up like a hog and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. And then Jesus stitches the whole thing up with the quotable line: Many are called. But few are chosen.

So. Just for the record, I’m getting a little sick of Matthew’s parables as of late. I’m tired of you lovely people waking up early on a day you could sleep in, getting all dressed up for church, and then you come here and listen to a violent and bloody story from Jesus, that you’d never tell your children at night, and yet here they are in the pew right next to you listening to this rated R stuff. And then, I, as the preacher, have to mop up all the blood and anger and judgment on the floor and try and turn a massacre into a message that sends you home with a promise from God that will give you hope for the week ahead, and not nightmares.

And not only that, but these parables have been ones where the most awful character is so easily associated with God. We hear the word ‘King’, and most of us (consciously or subconsciously) think to ourselves, “Okay, so that’s God in the story… it is God because Kings are powerful. Kings are the ones who care for the people. Kings are important… so pay close attention to him.” And then this King – God – like figure seems too much like a whinny, spoiled child whose throwing a hissy fit in aisle 8 of Hy-Vee because he didn’t get exactly what he wanted, which was for all the special guest to come to the party that he was throwing. So he threatens them with death and now we all are held hostage at some party hosted by a god who scares us.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m certain that there are smart, respectable preachers out there who will preach sermons today about how God is the king in this parable. And that’s totally valid. But I just can’t do it. I just don’t see it.

The king is a great image for God –if you didn’t lose the invitation to the wedding under that ever-growing pile of mail sitting on your kitchen, only to find out that the king has now sent out his soldiers to burn down your house and all the other guests that didn’t show. The king is a great image for God – if you’ve got the right clothes to wear.

Sorry to say, this King seems more like a member of ISIS than the God whom we believe to be love. Remember, we come to worship the God revealed in Jesus – who came not to be served (like a king) but to serve others. So if God is the king in the parable, I either can’t see it or I’m pretty sure I don’t want to worship that god.

But here is the beautiful thing about parables. They are not meant to be easily explained or like a puzzle that you solve once and now have figured out. No, they are meant to shift and change. Or as one of my favorite preachers, Barbara Brown Taylor, 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.”[1]

And this week, I heard it differently.

The good news of this parable, the gospel, slammed into me out of now where. With the help of my good friend, John Weisenburger, we realized that there is a crucial character in the story we never get to meet. There is a crucial character that never shows up and never says anything and yet the whole parable rests on him.

The doorman.

He is the invisible and yet crucial character in the story, who in a single act of defiance takes all of the power away from the King. The king comes in to the party and sees the poor guest who didn’t have on a wedding robe. And the king is furious because someone seems to be disrespecting and undermining his authority. The king is suddenly not the one with all the power in the room. The King isn’t getting what the King wants, which is pure allegiance and obedience. So the king asks him, “How did you get in here without a wedding robe on?” Or in others words, who let you in here without the proper attire? Well it was the doorman. But the man without the wedding robe would never tell – he didn’t say a word – never telling who was letting in the people who don’t belong.

What if God in the parable is the doorman. Letting people into the kingdom of Heaven who do not belong there? Have you ever felt like you didn’t belong somewhere? Have you ever gone to a gathering wearing the entirely wrong thing? You show up to dinner wearing jeans and t-shirt, and everyone else is in a dress or a suit. Or you walk into class on the first day of school wearing the cool clothes from last year, only to find out…they aren’t cool anymore. And suddenly, there is no doubt in your mind…I don’t belong here.

I experienced that very feeling a couple of weeks ago. My brother-in-law was able to get tickets the Packers/Vikings Game at Lambeau Field. Now, for those of you who know me, you know…I’m not a Packers fan. And I’m not a Vikings fan. I’m a Bears fan. So, I thought it was be fun to wear my Bears hat to the game.

Yeah. That was stupid. Now, I wasn’t naïve; I knew I would get some teasing. But it would be all in good fun.

Yeah. It wasn’t all in good fun. I am about 100% certain I was the only person out of the 79,000 that were at Lambeau field who was wearing a Bears hat and I was on the receiving end of some really nasty looks from people. And they weren’t joking. There was no question about it. Some people took one look at me and thought, “Who do you think you are coming in here dressed like that? You do not belong here.”

I was the guy in the parable who showed up to the wedding banquet without the proper wedding robe on. I was the guy who didn’t fit in.

But the truth is…it goes much bigger than that though. Most of us feel like we don’t fit in. In life.

Confession time: most of the time, I feel like I am the one who doesn’t fit in. Most of the time, I feel like I have absolutely no clue what I am doing in life – as a parent, as a pastor, as a human being. Should I shower Elliot with my love and my approval and my time, or will he turn into a needy kid who doesn’t know how to function on his own? Should I have prayed with her on the phone, or would that have been weird? Do I really believe in what that candidate stands and think it will make a difference or am I just going with the flow?

Now, let me be clear. I don’t tell you things so that you can feel bad for me and think I have low self-esteem or something like that and then feel the need to make me feel better. No. I just tell you these things because it is the truth. Most of the time, I’m have no clue what I am doing and I’m just waiting for the moment for other people to figure out I’m an imposter. In fact, this sort of thing has a name– it is called imposter syndrome. And the even bigger truth – most of us have it.

I call up friends and colleagues who are these amazing pastors and who do these incredible things and I ask them how they came up with this stuff, and without a moment of hesitation, they all say, “Dude, I have no idea what I’m doing and yeah, I must have just gotten lucky there.”

It’s called imposter syndrome. And at least at some point in our life, I suspect most of us have it. It is that persistent and pervasive feeling of inadequacy. Of not being enough. Smart enough. Good enough. Attractive enough. Strong enough. Having-it-all-together-enough. And, I think deep down, when we all are honest with ourselves, it leads to most of us worrying that we just simply do not belong. And eventually people are going to figure it out. But here is the good news – when it comes to the kingdom of God – we don’t have to. We don’t have to have it all together. We don’t have to wear the right clothes… we don’t have to know it all, because there is someone out there sneaking people into the kingdom of God who others (like the Kings of this world) think do not belong there. And it is God.

The Kingdom of God. It’s like a roomful of people who feel like they just don’t belong. You’ve got your inadequate parents. Your failed business professionals. Your insecure pastors. Your students who failed gym class. Your couples with failed marriages and your people who never made enough money. And you know what…there’s even a whinny king with anger issues there too. All of them standing in the kingdom of God. And in the end, none of them really know who let them in, but all any of them can say is, thanks be to God.

You know, suddenly I’m not so sick of these parables anymore.

[1] Barbara Brown Taylor, http://www.chapel.duke.edu/documents/sermons/2008/081012.pdf

Sunday, October 5th, 2014 – Sermon on Isaiah 5:1-7 and Matthew 21:33-46

Isaiah 5:1-7
1 Let me sing for my beloved my love-song concerning his vineyard: My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill. 2 He dug it and cleared it of stones, and planted it with choice vines; he built a watchtower in the midst of it, and hewed out a wine vat in it; he expected it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes. 3 And now, inhabitants of Jerusalem and people of Judah, judge between me and my vineyard. 4 What more was there to do for my vineyard that I have not done in it? When I expected it to yield grapes, why did it yield wild grapes? 5 And now I will tell you what I will do to my vineyard. I will remove its hedge, and it shall be devoured; I will break down its wall, and it shall be trampled down. 6 I will make it a waste; it shall not be pruned or hoed, and it shall be overgrown with briers and thorns; I will also command the clouds that they rain no rain upon it. 7 For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel, and the people of Judah are his pleasant planting; he expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry!

Matthew 21:33-46
33 “Listen to another parable. There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a watchtower. Then he leased it to tenants and went to another country. 34 When the harvest time had come, he sent his slaves to the tenants to collect his produce. 35 But the tenants seized his slaves and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. 36 Again he sent other slaves, more than the first; and they treated them in the same way. 37 Finally he sent his son to them, saying, “They will respect my son.’ 38 But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, “This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.’ 39 So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him. 40 Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” 41 They said to him, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time.” 42 Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the scriptures: “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes’? 43 Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom. 44 The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.” 45 When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them. 46 They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, because they regarded him as a prophet.

As a way of introducing the sermon, I want to share with you one of my favorite songs by the band The Civil Wars. The song is called “Same old, Same Old.”

I want to leave you, I want to lose us.

I want to give up. But I won’t.

 

I want to miss this. I want a heartache.

I want to run away. But I won’t.

 

Do I love you? Oh, I do.

And I’m going to until I’m gone.

But if you think that I can stay

In this same old, same old

Well, I don’t. I don’t.

 

I’m going to break things. I’m going to cross the line.

Make you wake up, cause you won’t.

 

I’m going to name names, I’m going to call us out.

I’m going to say it. If you won’t.

 

Do I love you? Oh, I do.

And I’m going to until I’m gone.

But if you think that I can stay

In this same old, same old

Well, I don’t.

I don’t wanna fight.

But I’ll fight with you

If I have to. If I have to.

Do I love you? Oh I do

And I’m going to until I’m gone.

But if you think that I can stay in this same old, same old

Well, I don’t. I don’t.

This is a love song, isn’t it? There is no doubt in my mind that the people in the song love each other. But what I love about this song and this band is how honest they are about relationships and how hard love can be. It almost hurts to listen to, because I suspect many of us can relate to it. But in a strange way, it also heals, because it speaks the truth about the way loving relationships can be.

Well, I offer this love song because we heard another love song in our scripture texts today. In Isaiah, a love-song is sung. 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. But then things go painfully wry. God expected the vineyard to yield grapes, but instead it gave wild, rotten grapes. 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. And God even says, “What more was there to do for my vineyard that I have not done it?” You could imagine God singing, “Do I love you? Of course I do. But if you think that I can stay in this same old, same old, I can’t. Something has to change.” When you have given everything you have to the care and survival of the relationship, but it just isn’t working. Why the wild grapes?

But what I want to emphasize is that this is a love-song about the difficulty of the relationship between God and God’s people. Sometimes, I am afraid that most of us believe in two God’s. The god of anger, God the father, who needs to be appeased and the god of Jesus, the god of love, who loves us without condition, forgiving our every sin. Part of this comes from misconceptions about the Old Testament and the New Testament. Many of us think that the Old Testament is about the violent God and so we should just read the New Testament, where we hear about Jesus. In fact, a couple of years ago I taught a Bible study at an assisted living center. We were talking about a difficult and violent text in the Old Testament, and a resident said, “Well, that is the Old Testament God. We now have the New Testament God in Jesus.”

No. They are the same God. Are there violent texts in the Old Testament, yes. But the same is true for the New Testament. We’ve simply focused our attention on the violence of Old Testament and we’ve ignored these texts about love-songs between God and God’s people. Songs about a God who is so in love with God’s people like a vineyard owner and his vineyard.

At our Suicide Awareness Event on Wednesday, the question was asked whether those who suicide go to heaven or hell. Corinne Chilstrom, our speaker whose son suicided 30 years ago, said, “Do we believe in a loving God. Or do we believing in an angry God. A god who loves and who cares for those who are sick and hurting and in pain? Or do we believe in a God who punishes people for the things that they do?” We’ve been taught for so long this image of God as an angry God up in the sky. But we see in Isaiah, it is a God in love with God’s people. It is about love, and love can be hard. And sometimes when you are in love with someone you have to say hard things to them and maybe even you get angry. But anger can be a sign of love and care, right? If you didn’t care about them, you wouldn’t be angry. Because you wouldn’t care. But our God is in love with God’s people and therefore is hurt and pained and angry when God’s people do things that prevent life from flourishing. When we produce wild grapes.

And so I want us to take that God that is in love with us into the parable from Matthew. Because we run the risk of seeing another angry God who is ready to punish and to kill and destroy. But let’s take a look again. Jesus, who is in the temple and speaking to the religious authorities – the temple priests and spiritual big-wigs, says, “Listen to another parable. There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a watchtower.” Sound familiar? Jesus is retelling the love-song from Isaiah! About a God showing care to God’s vineyard. Only Jesus shifts the story just a bit. In this parable, God has entrusted the vineyard (the people of God) to renters. We learn God is a trusting God. We learn that God is a god who invites others to care for God’s people. But then, the problem in this story isn’t that the vineyard produces sour and rotten grapes – no this vineyard is quite fruitful. The problem is that those renters won’t pay their rent – which is a portion of the crop. They hold the vineyard hostage and won’t share the fruits of the vineyard with the landowner.

So the vineyard owner sends servants to go and collect. And the renters kill them. So, the vineyard owner sends more. And the renters kill them. Then the vineyard owner sends his son, saying, ‘Well, certainly they will respect my son!’ And what do they do? They kill the son, thinking that that way they really will inherit the vineyard and it will become theirs!

Now, Jesus is telling this parable to the temple priests. And so Jesus ask them to finish the story. He asks them, “Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” To which the chief priests and Pharisees said, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time.”

The Pharisees and chief priests say those words. Not Jesus. And suddenly, we see that even the chief priests and Pharisees have been taught to believe in a hateful and vengeful god. A god that will destroy.

Now this is clearly an allusion to the story of Jesus, right. God, the vineyard owner, sends the servants (who are the prophets of old) and then he sends his son and the people kill him. Notice the vineyard owners doesn’t send his son to die, but sends the son to set the vineyard, the people of God, free. But the renters kill him instead. And the Pharisees and chief priests think that God then will come and destroy them. But is that what happens in the Jesus story? Does God come and destroy the Pharisees and chief priests after Jesus is killed? No. God sends God’s son, Jesus, to reveal God’s infinite and gracious love for the whole world. And then when they put Jesus to death, God raises him from the dead, and sends Jesus back to us once again with the message of God’s desperate and crazy love. [1] A love that will not stay dead. Why doesn’t God come and destroy the chief priests and the Pharisees? Because the truth is that they are part of the vineyard too. They are part of God’s people. So, in Jesus’ parable, not only are the Pharisees and chief priests the renters entrusted with caring for the vineyard and who fail but they are part of the vineyard too. The vineyard that God loves so much. The vineyard that God writes love-songs about.

Maybe the same is true for us. Maybe you and I are both the vineyard and the vineyard renters. You are the vineyard because you are God’s people. God cares about you and you belong to God. You will never belong to anyone else. Which means you can never not be connected to God. And it means that you produce fruits that God desires to have out in the world. You have gifts that bring a sweetness to this world that God wants to be out there. But we are also the tenants, the renters. We have been entrusted with caring for God’s vineyard. God’s people. And there will be times when we will not do a very good job of that. But to trust and to know that God will continue to send prophets into our life to get us back on track. And that God would entrust the vineyard once again to more people just goes to show how gracious and how loving this God really is.

You are the vineyard. You are God’s people. You are the one God writes love songs about. And you are the tenants of the vineyard. The ones who have been entrusted with the care of God’s people. May those two promises be planted and take root in your life, so as to comfort us and transform our lives. Amen.

[1] http://www.davidlose.net/2014/09/pentecost-17a-crazy-love/