Matthew 21:28-32

January 22, 2018

“What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ He answered, ‘I will not’; but later he changed his mind and went.

The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘I go, sir’; but he did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.”

Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him. Matthew 21:28-32

Back where I grew up, both sons would be in trouble. The first for talking back and the second for not doing the chores. But God, cast here as the father, doesn’t directly comment on the reaction of either. Jesus does that for us as the narrator. He tells us that the tax collectors and the prostitutes will beat the religious folks to the place of righteousness and peace.

It seems clear to me in this text that Jesus is openly criticizing the religious establishment. We religious folk are cast as the son who says yes but doesn’t. The others, the scandalous, the unclean are cast as the brother who says no but does. Let this be our Monday morning wakeup call.

Let’s step into the shoes of tax collectors and prostitutes and see what we can learn. Immediately we would feel their shame. No one likes tax collectors. No one admires prostitutes. The whole community judges them harshly and they breathe that in daily. The tax collector channels their judgment into his own resentment and ends up all the more harsh in his extortion. The prostitute tries hard to steel herself against the pain of her reality by shutting down her inner voice of self-respect and self-care. She has learned that wine helps but nothing makes the pain go away.

Then along comes Jesus. He sees them with compassion rather than judgment. He tells them that God loves them and has a place for them. He, like John the Baptist, says that the door to a new life is marked “Repentance.” The renewal of their minds, turning around their thinking, seeing themselves and others with fresh new eyes. They want what he offers. He breaks their hearts. He shatters their resistance. Suddenly they are shocked to realize that they are letting themselves be loved. Their lives change.

But the religious folk? They are proud of themselves. Proud of their upright standing in the community. Proud of how they are NOT like the tax collectors and prostitutes…and blind to just how much they have in common. Then Jesus comes along and dares to expose their pride, their pretention. Not because he doesn’t love them but because he does. For Jesus also sees their place and their potential for good…it has just been twisted and distorted and lost.

The easy way out of this text would be to say that “we’re all like both sons.” Far better to walk in someone else’s shoes for a bit and see where they might lead us.

Let us pray: Gracious Lord, if we refuse to bow to you then our necks get stiff. If we refuse to let you love us then we get hard on the inside and out. If we care only what the neighbors think of us then we no longer care about our neighbors. Come to us this morning. Walk through our resistance and fear that would keep you away as you walked through that door on Easter night. Touch us anew with your love that we might be freed to do what we can do in the vineyards of our lives. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

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Matthew 21:23-27

January 19, 2018

When he entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching, and said, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?”

Jesus said to them, “I will also ask you one question; if you tell me the answer, then I will also tell you by what authority I do these things. Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?”

And they argued with one another, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say to us, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ But if we say, ‘Of human origin,’ we are afraid of the crowd; for all regard John as a prophet.” So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.”

And he said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things. Matthew 21:23-27

The chief priests and elders are on their home court. The seat of their power. The temple. And they have Jesus in their crosshairs.

What are they hoping to do with their question about authority? Are they seeking information? Are they searching for the truth? Are they open-minded about what they might hear? We know the answers to those questions. No, they aren’t seeking the truth. No, they aren’t trying to better understand Jesus and his teaching. No, they are not open-minded. All they are trying to do is to give Jesus just enough rope to hang himself. They are building a case to support their own preconceived commitments.

They don’t care about Jesus. They don’t care about what he has to say. They only care about protecting their power, their positions, their prestige. Even if you give them the benefit of the doubt and assume that they are well intentioned, seeking only to do their jobs, you still come to the simple conclusion that they were stone cold wrong about Jesus. He was only a threat to them.

Jesus answers their question with a question. Their internal arguments betray them. They don’t want to be exposed for what they really are. They aren’t interested in God or the people. They aren’t seeking truth, they are just protecting themselves. So they evade. And Jesus refuses to answer their question on their terms.

The question concerns authority. Later in Matthew Jesus will be quite clear about his authority. “And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.’” This is an authority rooted in creation itself. God is the author of life, continually writing the story of our existence. Jesus is the central character because Jesus, in the flesh, reveals the loving character of God.

What does Jesus do with his authority? He heals the sick. He feeds the hungry. He touches the possessed and the dispossessed. He doesn’t seek the adulation of the crowds or the attention of the chief priests and elders. He does what he came to do. To exemplify love.

When he finally speaks of his own authority, to his disciples on that mountain in the last chapter of Matthew, he tells them to go and continue doing what they saw him do. To go. To make disciples. To baptize and to teach. And he concludes with a promise, “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.

Let us pray: Dear Lord, you are the Author and the giver of life. You are Lord, Savior, Guide, and Friend. May your authority reach into our lives, into our thoughts, our desires, our actions. May we see through the “chief priests and elders” of our day, those who sit in positions of self-serving power, who reject your way of being in the world, who use people rather than serving them. May we find our place in the world at your feet, and may we follow where those feet lead. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Matthew 21:18-22

January 11, 2018

In the morning, when he returned to the city, he was hungry. And seeing a fig tree by the side of the road, he went to it and found nothing at all on it but leaves. Then he said to it, “May no fruit ever come from you again!” And the fig tree withered at once.

When the disciples saw it, they were amazed, saying, “How did the fig tree wither at once?”

Jesus answered them, “Truly I tell you, if you have faith and do not doubt, not only will you do what has been done to the fig tree, but even if you say to this mountain, ‘Be lifted up and thrown into the sea,’ it will be done. Whatever you ask for in prayer with faith, you will receive.” Matthew 21:18-22

Interesting, how a text like this that clearly refers to the power of faith, reminds me first of how much I doubt. In this case, I doubt that a video camera would have caught Jesus getting angry at a tree and killing it. I doubt that, even if we gathered a million of the most faithful people in the world and asked them to fervently focus their prayers on moving Mount Shasta into the Pacific ocean, it wouldn’t happen.

As for the idea that “Whatever you ask for in prayer with faith, you will receive” – in the real world, this one is just cruel. Consider the parents grieving the death of a child due to cancer. How many times did they pray for a cure, for recovery, for just a few more years together? What are they to do with a Bible verse like this one? Either they add the shame of “I guess we just didn’t have enough faith” to the pain of their loss or they just cynically walk away from the faith altogether. Multiply that by every other time that people don’t get what they pray for.

And yes, I know the old clichés, “God’s ways are not our ways,” “God’s timing,” “God’s will,” or Garth Brook’s contribution, “Some of God’s greatest gifts are unanswered prayers.” The bottom line here is simply that we don’t always get what we pray for, even if a verse like this one suggests we COULD if we just believed it enough.

Maybe then, we think, we ought to read these verses figuratively rather than literally. The fig tree represents followers of God who don’t bear fruit in their lives. Does that really help? I once had a parishioner who had been obsessed by this image since her childhood. She came to identify herself as an unfruitful fig tree. Everything unfortunate that happened to her or to her family, in this faithful woman’s imagination, was her fault because Jesus was cursing her for her lack of faithfulness. Sometimes there really is a thin line between fanatic faith and mental illness.

So this passage reminds me first of my many doubts. Part of these doubts are rooted in experience. Life just doesn’t work that way. Creation just doesn’t work that way. We are often tempted to reduce faith to magic, and this is a temptation we ought always resist.

But I’m still glad that we came to these verses this morning. Because the reaction that it causes in me is, I trust, the work of the Holy Spirit.

It is good to be reminded today that fig trees aren’t landscaping features. They are tools designed to produce figs. That reminds me that every day bring many opportunities to be a fruitful Christian.

It is good to be reminded that, although I don’t expect prayer alone to undo the damage of California mudslides or prevent them in the first place, I will still pray for the victims and the first responders. If nothing else, my prayers will remind me that my life, and all of our lives, are finally in God’s care and keeping. We’ll never know the answers to all of our questions and life will never work out exactly like we wish – God isn’t Santa Claus or the Bank of the MegaMillion lottery – but that doesn’t mean that prayer isn’t an essential component to a healthy, whole, meaningful, and productive life.

This text this morning reminds me of the danger of going life alone – and the prayers we pray, or don’t pray – are a pretty good barometer to the degree to which we’re depending on God or just doing our own thing.

Remember that prayer might not always change our circumstances but prayer can and does change us to better meet those circumstances. I don’t doubt that at all.

Let us pray: Gracious Lord, you are always far more ready to hear our prayers than we are to pray. Rather than waiting until we muster up the faith to pray, work in us that we might pray first and in that, discover the gift of faith that you have planted in our lives. This morning we pray for all who are discouraged, losing hope, losing faith, in the face of difficult circumstances in their lives. Send people their way who can help them, and in that helping, give them a glimpse of your love. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Matthew 21:12-17

January 10, 2018

Then Jesus entered the temple and drove out all who were selling and buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves. He said to them, “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer’; but you are making it a den of robbers.”

The blind and the lame came to him in the temple, and he cured them. But when the chief priests and the scribes saw the amazing things that he did, and heard the children crying out in the temple, “Hosanna to the Son of David,” they became angry and said to him, “Do you hear what these are saying?” Jesus said to them, “Yes; have you never read, ‘Out of the mouths of infants and nursing babies you have prepared praise for yourself’?”

He left them, went out of the city to Bethany, and spent the night there. Matthew 21:12-17

We had a church council meeting last night. It was the first meeting of the year with a brand new set of people elected to serve as leaders within our congregation. Since financial oversight is a key part of their responsibilities, we spent a few minutes talking about money in the three hours that we were together.

When you are a leader in a congregation it is a good thing to remember Jesus shaking things up in the temple courtyard. It is easy to get lost in the business side of things. We spent a few minutes talking about the concrete that has settled in the sidewalk and the trip hazard it represents. The status of the flat roof of the church building and the repairs needed there. We were relieved to hear that most of that work will be covered by warranty but it is work that has to be done to be good stewards of a facility where lots of good things happen.

But we covered all of that in a few minutes. We spent most of our time talking about and thinking through how we will work together in helping our congregation be the best community we can be for the sake of the people God loves. Those who are already here and those we hope to reach in this next year. We began our meeting by listening to the Bible, connecting that witness with the challenges and opportunities before us. We ended the meeting holding hands and praying the Lord’s Prayer. The council members all sacrificed an evening they could have spent at home with their families. They all came from long days at work to spend the evening doing “extra work” at church. This is what it takes to be the church.

Still, Jesus cleansing the temple needs to stay in the forefront of our minds. The money changers and the sacrifice sellers sitting at their tables saw everyone who entered the temple as a potential customer who could enrich them. The blind and the lame? To them they were only as valuable as the money they needed to change or the money they had to buy a couple of pigeons. But for Jesus? They were people with needs who Jesus wanted to help.

Keeping the main thing the main thing is vital. It is so easy to forget that. So easy to get lost in the details. To forget why we do what we do. And it is also so easy to get stuck in the rut of “we’ve always done it that way before.” That came up last night too.

The chief priests and scribes weren’t amazed at the healing that Jesus did or the voices of children who were singing “Hosanna to the Son of David.” They should have been. They should have welcomed the work that Jesus was doing among them. They should have welcomed Jesus’ presence among them. But he represented change. He didn’t fit in their box. He threatened their power and their positions. They got angry.

When it comes to church leadership, it is best to keep the main thing the main thing with open minds and open hearts attuned to whatever song God places in our hearts.

Let us pray: Gracious Lord, the temple was a holy place, built for holy purposes. But it was built by people, all of whom, like us, are subject to mixed motives and self-seeking behaviors. It was easy then, and it is easy now, to get off track. To forget our purpose. To rely only on ourselves and miss the opportunities to serve. May our own versions of the blind and the lame, the hurting people who need hope or the broken people who need healing, not be seen as interruptions or inconveniences but as the very reason why you bring us together into community. Turn over our tables if we ever lose sight of that. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Matthew 21:1-11

January 9, 2018

When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, just say this, ‘The Lord needs them.’ And he will send them immediately.”

This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying, “Tell the daughter of Zion, Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”

The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?” The crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.” Matthew 21:1-11

Jesus lived in the day when social media consisted of village gossip. People talked. Word spread. Life was like a giant game of post office, tall tales abounded. It is safe to say that many more people had heard of Jesus than had actually seen him. It was an exciting day when word spread that someone had heard that Jesus was coming to town. It was time for a parade.

The controversy this year in college football had to do with who gets to claim credit for winning the national championship. Officially, the champion is the University of Alabama. They beat the University of Georgia and ended the year with a record of 13-1. Unofficially, according to themselves, the University of Central Florida say they are the rightful champion. They were the only team to go undefeated, 13-0, and they beat Auburn (which had previously defeated both Georgia and Alabama.) UCF even had a big parade through Orlando to celebrate “their” championship.

What is it with parades? Turns out it was a very “Roman” thing to do. Whenever a victorious commander returned to town there was no greater honor than to celebrate with a “triumph.” Part civil ritual, part religious festival, its ultimate pay-off was an increase in honor and glory for the leader of the victory. Caesar would lead the parade – consisting of his troops, the slaves he had captured, and the various spoils of war. It was a BIG deal. A triumph would go on for days at great expense as everyone so honored sought to “out-parade” all of those who had gone before.

Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem was an anti-triumph. He rode in on a donkey, not a great white war horse or a chariot pulled by four horses. No captives. No spoils. Just a crowd of hopeful, nosy, and ultimately fickle people.

So who is the real champion? Jesus and his anti-triumph or the Roman Emperor and his glorious pomp, circumstance, and power? The crowd would soon make its choice.

Let us pray: Dear Lord, your entry into Jerusalem was a surprise to everyone. The crowds greeted you with cheers. Maybe their expectations were the same as ours – that you would make everything better in their lives. They didn’t realize that your work was to make them better and, through them, to make life better for all. They didn’t understand what winning would look like for you. Change our hearts that we might stick with you long after the parade is over. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Matthew 20:29-34

January 8, 2018

As they were leaving Jericho, a large crowd followed him. There were two blind men sitting by the roadside. When they heard that Jesus was passing by, they shouted, “Lord, have mercy on us, Son of David!” The crowd sternly ordered them to be quiet; but they shouted even more loudly, “Have mercy on us, Lord, Son of David!”

 Jesus stood still and called them, saying, “What do you want me to do for you?” They said to him, “Lord, let our eyes be opened.”

Moved with compassion, Jesus touched their eyes. Immediately they regained their sight and followed him. Matthew 20:29-34

Again I am reminded that the author of Matthew probably had a copy of the gospel according to Mark in front of him as he wrote…and Matthew, for his own purposes, sought to improve Mark. Here Matthew has two blind men waiting by the road for Jesus while in Mark (Mark 10:46-52) there is only one. The long-held theory here is that Matthew was very aware that Jewish custom required two or three witnesses as confirmation of the truth.

That might not seem all that important but, to me, it is. On two levels. First, it is always helpful to remember that real live human beings doing the best they could to further faith in Jesus wrote the gospels. They weren’t perfect. The gospels aren’t perfect. Jesus is perfect. The writers, like us, are witnesses to what they have heard about Jesus and what they have seen in his effects on the lives of people. The Jesus story is told in stereo.

And second, Matthew himself, following Mark, becomes a confirming witness. Soon Luke would follow, then John. They would all be writing on the heels of the work of Paul and all of the other first century witnesses to the rise of the Christian movement. They would become a part of the great cloud of witnesses, stretching back to the first words put to paper and ahead to you and me. Most importantly, they spoke up. They didn’t keep the good news to themselves.

Two blind men are sitting on the side of the road. When they heard that Jesus was passing by, they shouted, “Lord, have mercy on us, Son of David!” What did they have to lose? What other hope did they have? They heard that Jesus might be helpful to them and they weren’t going to let the opportunity to seek his help pass them by.

But the crowd around them – the crowd who could clearly see what was going on – sternly ordered them to be quiet. I wonder why. Why was the crowd bothered by their cries for help? Was it a Potemkin village moment – like cities clearing out the homeless ahead of a Super Bowl? Did they find the blind men to be an embarrassment to the dignity of dusty village of Jericho?

Why did the crowds shush the blind men? How did their pleas for help bother any of them? Was anyone else made blind by their cries? Did anyone in the crowd have anything to lose?

The story could read differently. The whole crowd could have joined the witness of the two blind men. The whole crowd could have directed Jesus’ attention to their hopeless plight. But they didn’t. They sternly ordered them to be quiet. But Jesus heard them anyway.

He walked through the crowd, past the crowd, and healed the men’s blindness. Jesus asked them, “What do you want me to do for you?” and he honored their request.

Remember this story the next time you find yourself hot under the collar because of the voices you hear pleading for justice and healing and full inclusion in human community. Will you shush them or will you join the cloud of witnesses advocating for them? You don’t even have to wonder about what Jesus might do in the same situation.

Let us pray: Gracious Lord, you hear the cries of the helpless and you help. You hear the voices of those on the edge and you come to their cause. We hear those voices all around us – those who fear deportation, those caught in addiction, those frightened in their own neighborhoods of those who ought to help them. So many voices, many too afraid to speak up, others afraid of what might happen as they refuse to remain silent. Open our eyes. Heal our blindness. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Matthew 20:20-28

January 5, 2018

Then the mother of the sons of Zebedee came to him with her sons, and kneeling before him, she asked a favor of him. And he said to her, “What do you want?” She said to him, “Declare that these two sons of mine will sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom.”

But Jesus answered, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink?” They said to him, “We are able.”

He said to them, “You will indeed drink my cup, but to sit at my right hand and at my left, this is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared by my Father.”

When the ten heard it, they were angry with the two brothers. But Jesus called them to him and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” Matthew 20:20-28

Tom Brady, quarterback for the New England Patriots, will be 40 years old when he takes the field for their next playoff game. He is, by NFL standards, ancient. Yet he still plays as well as anyone has. Whenever he is asked how he does it he says that he has learned, over the years, how to take care of his body. He is fastidious about his exercise and stretching regimen, his diet, his sleep. Amazingly, I read a quote last week where he said “I’m never sore.”

A lot of players might want to be like Tom Brady, but are they willing to put in that kind of work? Are they willing to go to the same extreme lengths to prepare and be prepared?

We could ask that same kind of question about any pursuit in life. Excellence doesn’t just happen. Natural gifts are wonderful but they don’t move beyond possibilities without being honed and exercised and used.

James and John want to sit in positions of honor next to Jesus. Matthew softens their request by having their mother bring it to Jesus but it is still a mouthful. The other disciples are appalled. They were angry. Why? Because they thought the request was impertinent? Maybe they wanted the same thing but were shocked that James and John said it out loud? Either way, the surprise here is that Jesus doesn’t get angry. He just tells it like it is.

There will be a price to pay – and Jesus assures the disciples that they will pay it. The price, the cup, will be suffering the consequences of self-giving love in a self-serving world. It will be facing rejection, humiliation, even martyrdom. Not to seek glory, but to serve and to live in the best interests of others. To join Jesus as conductors on the Underground Railroad helping people escape from the slavery of their misguided pursuits to the freedom of life in the Kingdom of God. Dangerous but worth it.

This text challenges me. I know how easy it is to be complacent and comfortable as a Christian living in the air conditioned, padded pew, world of the church. And I know how it feels when I am pushed, or I push others, beyond our comfort zones of beliefs, values, or actions. Pushed toward a place where we serve rather than being served, where we give rather than being given to, where we sacrifice “what will it cost me if I do?” to “what will it cost others if I don’t?”

Let us pray: Dear Lord, like gravity, we are inclined to seek the easy way out of many things. We might want glory and honor – whatever that looks like in our place in the world – without realizing what it is that we are seeking or whether or not we are willing to do our part. Let it be enough today that we simply shoulder the burdens that life puts before us with grace, gratitude, and the willingness to be helpful. To serve others. To do our part. Let that be enough. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Matthew 20:17-19

January 4, 2018

While Jesus was going up to Jerusalem, he took the twelve disciples aside by themselves, and said to them on the way, “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified; and on the third day he will be raised.” Matthew 20:17-19

Supposedly there are a few people in the world who, when reading a mystery novel, prefer to read the last chapter first. As much as I love reading mystery novels, I can’t imagine doing that. It would take all the fun out of it. Intrigue and suspense require not knowing, at least not knowing fully. But there is something different going on with Jesus’ own predictions of his death.

It isn’t just foreshadowing. They aren’t spoiler alerts. They pop up at three key moments. Each time, wedged between whatever happens before and after, they remind us anew that Jesus’ mission and purpose are unlike anything the world has seen before. His purpose, his determination, his own commitment, is the definition of self-sacrificing love. Jesus is God’s grace, in the flesh.

Eventually we will walk with Matthew through his description of Jesus’ last days. That will come in the last chapters. Now we are just in chapter 20. We’ve heard Jesus twice – in his comments on the rich and in his parable of the generous landowner – use the phrase “the last will be first and the first last.” That enigmatic phrase hints that something different, something unsettling, is going on. It is about reversals, of expectations, of roles and rules.

As Matthew brings us along on this journey with Jesus and his disciples we come to these moments, these personal moments, where Jesus shares insider information. As we read his words, we join him as insiders. We know what is going on. We know what to expect. This new now hangs in the back of our own minds.

Dr. Martin Luther King’s sermons were peppered with stories and allusions that he used again and again and again. As wonderful as his words were, they weren’t always originally his. He drew from the deep well of many prophetic preachers before him. People he admired. People he emulated. People who shaped him. Thus, when he said things like “I’ve been to the mountaintop. I’ve seen the other side. I may not get there with you but you’ll get there” he wasn’t so much predicting his own death as he was taking his place in the sea of witnesses that stretched back through the preachers of his education and childhood, through Jesus to Moses.

Every great leader in history has died. Even those, perhaps especially those, who have battled the currents of culture in the cause of justice. But only Jesus rose from the dead. Only Jesus would be the living embodiment, the ultimate vindication, of God’s loving will and purpose for humanity. History is full of men and women worthy of our admiration. Jesus alone is our Lord and Savior.

Let us pray: Dear Lord, we know the story. We have known the story a long time. But still it shocks and surprises us. Every time. To hear again of your commitment and courage, your steadfast persistence in the face of all we consider to be earthly powers. To hear again the story of the rejection and cruelty you endured. Why? Because you love us. You want us to see again what real love really looks like. As we share your journey you shape our lives, transforming us from the inside out, that we might be reflections of your love. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Matthew 20:1-16

January 3, 2018

“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard.

When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, ‘Why are you standing here idle all day?’ They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’

When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.’ When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage.

Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’

But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” Matthew 20:1-16

I don’t know about everywhere else but I know that in a city like Houston it is easy to find day laborers. Home Depot parking lots are just about automatic. Gas stations in other parts of town. Every day they are there. It is hard for me to see them late in the afternoon. Hard to imagine anyone heading home empty handed. From their point of view, the owner of the vineyard was a great boss.

Well…except for those who worked all day and expected a bonus.

We still haven’t hired a contractor to rebuild my daughter’s house after Harvey. The hurricane is still very real to her as her home sits reduced to 2×4’s and concrete. I talked to a friend of mine who is in the business. He told me he couldn’t estimate the cost because he has no control over the costs of labor or supplies. Everything is more expensive. He said, “I used to pay $120 a day for a guy to hang sheetrock; now they won’t touch it for less than $500.” So there you go. You can’t blame them. Supply and demand. The invisible hand at work.

My sense is that the original hearers of this parable also first heard it from the point of view of eking out a living one daily job at a time. Working for bosses who may or may not pay them. Working without any recourse or protection. Hanging on to life by a thread.

And then came the wonder at the deeper meaning of the story. That God is a generous landowner, paying not what we are owed but always providing what we need. That God’s economy of love and justice seems so backward, so upside down, compared to the way the “real” world really works.

Except…even when it comes to running a business, treating employees with justice works out better over the long haul than using and abusing people like pawns whose only value is making a buck.

Let us pray: Gracious Lord, everything we have, everything we are, everything we need, comes from you. You plant us in a garden of abundance. You give us enough. Yet we want more. We create a myth of scarcity without realizing how much that costs everyone. Help us trust your love today, one day at a time, and open our hearts to those who barely get by. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Matthew 19:23-30

January 2, 2018

Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly I tell you, it will be hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astounded and said, “Then who can be saved?” But Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but for God all things are possible.”

Then Peter said in reply, “Look, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?”

 Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man is seated on the throne of his glory, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold, and will inherit eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first. Matthew 19:23-30

Let’s ask the question directly – does Jesus have something against rich people?

In today’s text Jesus says “it will be hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven…” That sounds harsh in the ears of those of us who never worry about having enough money to buy groceries. It even sounded harsh to Jesus’ own disciples. They were “greatly astounded” to hear it. Yes, I have heard this comment explained away with a reference to the “needle gate” into the old city of Jerusalem. Hogwash. This comment sounds harsh in our ears – like Jesus telling the rich young man to give everything away and then come follow him – because it is supposed to sound harsh!

It isn’t that Jesus has something against rich people – it IS about Jesus having his finger on the pulse of how we think about life, about what we value and admire, about our wishes and dreams, IF we choose to leave God out of the equation.

Many people have pointed out what is commonly called Jesus’ preferential option for the poor. That is clearly central to Jesus’ way of being in the world. He notices and addresses what the world dismisses and discounts. Jesus’ value system is different than the cultural norms of those who equate financial security with success and God’s favor. Jesus would agree that is it the love of money, not money itself, that is the root of all evil. But that doesn’t mean that Jesus has a thing against rich people.

Yes, Jesus shocked his disciples with his comment that it will be hard for a rich person to live in the kingdom of heaven (a healthy relationship with God that begins now and continues into life after death) but he never said that such a relationship would be easy for a poor person.

At the end of the day, it isn’t about what we have but about what we do with what we have. Healthy stewardship of our lives isn’t about giving 10% of our income to charity because we are rich and we can, it is about devoting 100% of our lives to doing the next right thing in every area of our lives. God doesn’t create equality, God creates diversity. Yet God does call us to justice and fairness. Doing the best we can for the common good, mindful of those on the edges and those left behind, is the essence of Christian discipleship in all areas of our lives.

This isn’t easy but it is possible. As long as we don’t leave God out of the equation of our lives. With God, all things are possible.

Let us pray: Dear Lord, as we begin a new year, help us begin from the solid foundation of finding our lives in you. You are our Lord, our standard, our measure. You light the path to a life worth living, a life of meaning and purpose, a life that makes the world a better place. Guide us through this new year, that we don’t get lost following dead ends and empty idols. In Jesus’ name. Amen.