Archive for February, 2018

Matthew 23:23-26

February 28, 2018

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel!

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and of the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup, so that the outside also may become clean.” Matthew 23:23-26

This past weekend I read an article that the city government in Jerusalem locked the doors of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in the center of the Old City over a dispute concerning municipal taxes. It seems that the Christian groups – Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox, and Armenian – who own that church building also own a lot of land in and around Jerusalem. They have been leasing that land for commercial purposes and then refusing to pay municipal taxes on their profits. Ouch.

The article stressed that the church itself is not subject to property taxes. It also suggested that oppression of the Christian faith in view of the recent decision to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem might also be in play. I’m thinking it is all about money…on all sides.

We have three major ministries in our congregation. Two of them – our schools and our Faith House ministry which provides housing for those who come to Houston for medical treatment – do just fine financially. The third, our congregational ministry, seems perpetually just a little bit behind on everything. Why? Because we charge people for rent and for tuition. We have set prices and people pay them. That isn’t how it works with the main ministry of the congregation. No one is coerced to giving anything to the ministry of the congregation itself. They just give what they give. There, we live by faith.

I notice in today’s text that Jesus doesn’t say anything against the practice of tithing, of financially supporting ministry. What he criticizes is the over-focus on finances and the under-focus on justice. That is a problem. In the very baldest of terms, it makes me wonder how many times I, and everyone else who does what I do, have held back from speaking directly and lovingly on an issue of justice for fear that the people who pay my salary may quit coming and quit giving?

This temptation has always been there. The writer of James names it: My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, “Have a seat here, please,” while to the one who is poor you say, “Stand there,” or, “Sit at my feet,” have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts?

I don’t want to do that. I hate the very idea. It runs counter to everything I believe and all that I hope for in congregational life. It is good to be reminded of the temptation and to resist it with every fiber of my being.

Let us pray: Dear Lord, we’ve all heard it before, “Do as I say and not as I do” – even though we know that actions speak louder than words. Challenge us to honesty and integrity in all things, especially when we’re tempted to say the right things but do the wrong things, or when we’re tempted to treat people less than honestly and lovingly. Forgive us. Cleanse us and make us whole. In Jesus’ name. Amen.


Matthew 23:16-22

February 27, 2018

“Woe to you, blind guides, who say, ‘Whoever swears by the sanctuary is bound by nothing, but whoever swears by the gold of the sanctuary is bound by the oath.’ You blind fools! For which is greater, the gold or the sanctuary that has made the gold sacred?

And you say, ‘Whoever swears by the altar is bound by nothing, but whoever swears by the gift that is on the altar is bound by the oath.’ How blind you are! For which is greater, the gift or the altar that makes the gift sacred? So whoever swears by the altar, swears by it and by everything on it; and whoever swears by the sanctuary, swears by it and by the one who dwells in it; and whoever swears by heaven, swears by the throne of God and by the one who is seated upon it.” Matthew 23:16-22

Yesterday morning we met with an architect at church. We’ll meet with another one on Thursday. We have long had problems with the stained glass wall that runs down one whole side of our sanctuary. It is chockful of holes and cracks. The caulking is full of the asbestos that no one used to worry about when our church building was constructed. So now we’re studying our options for restoring or replacing the stained glass wall. As you can imagine, it will be expensive. It will also evoke strong emotions as we decide what we are going to do.

I’m keeping all of that in mind as I hear Jesus speak this morning. He attacks us in our “edifice complexes.”

I get it. The church is not the building, the church is the people. I think we all understand that. As a matter of fact, I think we often get confused on this very point. Listen closely to those who defend their building at all costs and you could very well be hearing an entirely different message – often people aren’t so much defending the building as they are their memories and their aspirations for what happened and will happen to the people who gather there.

Few public structures evoke the kind of feelings that religious structures evoke. Maybe it has always been that way.

The problems come when we forget that we baptize people, but we don’t baptize buildings. The problem comes when we over-identify what we hope to see happen in the lives of people with the structures and the traditions and “the way we do things around here.” How else would the ancients come up with the idea that swearing by their altar has some sort of mystical magical power compared to their barbeque pits back home? Not to mention the idea that gold is somehow more godly than wood or stone?

What is the corrective here? Maybe it is as simple as looking a little deeper. Maybe it means looking through everything from the stained glass to the walls to the pews to the candles and all of the rest of it, to see the deeper reality going on. God is calling his people together like a mother calls her family to the dinner table. Why?

To spend time together. To share our lives together. To pray and praise God, in the best and the worst times of our lives. To be gathered…and then to be sent. To be sent back into the world where we live, the jobs we do, the friends and family and neighbors who count on us. To be salt and light. To live in faith, hope, and love.

That really is the real deal, isn’t it? And if stained glass helps us toward that, bring it on. As long as we keep the main thing, the main thing.

Let us pray: Dear Jesus, we know you don’t live in houses built with human hands…but we trust that you are present when we gather in such houses. And we know that all holiness comes only as a reflection of you. Help us see that. Help us always keep the main thing, the main thing. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Matthew 23:13-15

February 26, 2018

“But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you lock people out of the kingdom of heaven. For you do not go in yourselves, and when others are going in, you stop them. Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you cross sea and land to make a single convert, and you make the new convert twice as much a child of hell as yourselves.” Matthew 23:13-15

As I said last week, the scribes and the Pharisees will get a tongue lashing from Jesus for the rest of this chapter. But instead of thinking that what Jesus says refers to “them back there”, or even “them” today, let’s listen all week as if his words are directed straight at us. I choose to read this chapter as if the words are directed straight at me.

Why? Because I want to grow. Looking down my nose at someone else doesn’t help anything. It just makes me not pay attention to where I’m walking and thus, far more likely to stumble. But, as difficult as it is to hear hard words, I am far more likely to benefit from them if they hit me where they need to. So here we go…

The word “hypocrite” has its roots in the Greek theater. Actors would hold up masks for the various characters they would play. This allowed a few actors in a company to portray many different characters. That is fine in a play, not too fine in real life. It is where we get the word “two-faced.” Jesus accuses us of hypocrisy.

I plead guilty as charged. If I act one way in public and another way at home, I am the definition of a hypocrite. If I act one way in front of the congregation and another way in a team meeting or a staff meeting, guilty again. Clearly, life itself draws us out in different ways but what Jesus points out runs deeper. It reaches our character – the way we are when no one is looking.

Here Jesus points out how our actions can actually block someone from experiencing the reign of God in their lives. Rather than seeing the freedom and the love that is at the heart of a relationship with God, we are far too quick to expect conformity to tradition, certain kinds of public decorum.

Unwittingly, rather than walking with someone into a new or renewed relationship with God, we subtly encourage them to mistake that relationship to one of belonging with us. OUR rules and regulations – most of them unspoken and unconscious – become the measure of that relationship. Rather than freedom, people bumble into a new kind of bondage because of our blind guidance.

What is the corrective lens that might help us?

To the first, I think the answer looks like honesty and vulnerability. Often our hypocrisy is driven by the idea that we need to be all things to all people, maybe even all things to just some people. Bad idea. We can’t do it. Best if we just be who God created us to be in all of our glory and all of our limitations and all of our bumps, bruises, and beauty.

As to the second, we do well to remember that new relationships bring newness to everyone in the relationship. Rather than expecting someone new to conform, we would do well to listen closely to the gifts, the longings, the heart, of the new person with the expectation that they will change us as much as we will impact them. We do well to expect traditions to change (because they always will anyway…even our most beloved traditions were brand new innovations at some point along the way.) You can’t expect spiritual renewal if you can’t recognize that “new” lies right in the middle of it.

Let us pray: Dear Lord, look at us, face to face. Invite us to take down our masks so that we might be truly seen. Look us in the eye and remind us again how much you love us. Remind us again and again that you will never let us go. Perhaps then we might have the courage to put our masks away for good and see the faces, the real faces, of those you will reach through us. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Matthew 23:1-12

February 22, 2018

Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them. They do all their deeds to be seen by others; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long. They love to have the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have people call them rabbi. But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all students. And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father—the one in heaven. Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah. The greatest among you will be your servant. All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted. Matthew 23:1-12

The scribes and Pharisees get a bit of a comeupance in this chapter. It is well deserved. But I take it personally. Therefore, when I read “the scribes and Pharisees” I will count myself among their number as a professional religious leader. And I’m going to include, in my imagination, everyone else who numbers themselves among the “us” whenever their conversation takes them to the place where they draw a distinction between “us and them”.

Notice that Jesus isn’t criticizing the laws of Moses. We need order in our lives. We need boundaries. We need to know, in practical terms, what being loving to our neighbors looks like. On our own we can’t figure that out. We’re too selfish and self-centered. We need something outside of ourselves to guide us. If we don’t have that, then it is every person for themselves and the strongest wins. That is chaos. That is licentiousness. God loves us too much to cast us so adrift.

The trouble that Jesus has is with those in positions of power and privilege who apply these laws to others, adding a little more of their own interpretation for their own selfish reasons, and then create loopholes that don’t apply to them. The pastors who set high moral standards in public while they privately do whatever they want. The parishioners who dismiss everyone else in the world who don’t sign on to their doctrinal standards. The farmers who decry “welfare queens” and lobby for higher government payments for price supports and set aside acres.

Jesus nails our desire to look good in public. Our human desire for honor, for prestige, for red carpets. All of our efforts to keep the “riffraff” out of our neighborhoods. The desires behind most “not in my backyard” revolts. We want that mirror on the wall that always assures us that we are the fairest of them all.

Why? Because deep down inside we are afraid that we aren’t good enough. The wounds of life run deeply within us. As long as we keep the outside of the house painted and nicely landscaped, in the right neighborhood, no one will notice the pain we hoard inside. So we set up systems – all the way up to the highest levels – that will preserve the Potemkin Village realities of our lives.

But God loves us too much for that. He alone is Lord. He alone is Mother and Father. This is truly a blessing to know because, if God isn’t our Lord, then our lives are cast adrift on an ocean of pretenders, every one of whom wants a piece of us. God alone seeks our wholeness.

Let us pray: Stay near us, Lord Jesus, we ask you today. Slow us down, help us breath, let us see, deep into the reality of your creation in us, that we are loved. Just as we are. Now and forever. Regardless of what the rest of the world might say. Give us peace in our own skins, and use us to serve the people who will float through our lives today. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Matthew 22:41-46

February 21, 2018

Now while the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them this question: “What do you think of the Messiah? Whose son is he?” They said to him, “The son of David.” He said to them, “How is it then that David by the Spirit calls him Lord, saying, ‘The Lord said to my Lord, “Sit at my right hand, until I put your enemies under your feet”’? If David thus calls him Lord, how can he be his son?” No one was able to give him an answer, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions. Matthew 22:41-46

What does it take to change your mind about something? When was the last time that you can remember changing your mind, your opinion, your perspective? I asked that question on Facebook the other day, now I’m asking it again in the face of the question Jesus posed to the Pharisees.

Jesus asked them a question about the Messiah. For the Pharisees, their expectations regarding the Messiah are not much different than those branches of modern Christianity that take the Bible’s promise of Jesus coming again very literally. He will come out of the air, at the sound of a trumpet, leading an army of warrior angels. It is helpful to remember that not all Christians interpret such poetry in literal terms. But my experience tells me that there is little, if any, hope of convincing someone to change their point of view on such matters.

Jesus tries to reach them by appealing to the very scriptures that they thought holy. He pointed out to them what their holy texts actually said – but they couldn’t see it. Their presuppositions, their own strongly held opinions, blinded them to plain words of the text. They couldn’t see what was right in front of their eyes. In the text, and in the flesh.

This is an important dynamic in our lives today. We hear about people being divided from one another. Peoples’ dismissive and mistrustful reactions to rationality and facts. We are suffering from cultural hardening of the arteries and that won’t end well for the body.

We would all do well to spend as much time thinking more clearly and openmindedly about our own closely held positions. To listen before speaking. To listen without judgment, seeking first to understand rather than to be understood.

Repentance here has less to do with apologizing and more to do with opening ourselves to a new point of view, a new way of looking at things.

The worst part of today’s text is how it ends. It says “nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions.” That is a tragic ending. They had the Messiah right there in front of them. The physical incarnation of the Creator of the heavens and the earth…but they quit talking to him. They quit asking him questions. They didn’t seek his counsel.

At that point they had nothing left to do with him except kill him to shut him up.

That’s tragic. For the Pharisees. But for God, even their closemindedness, their murderous turf defending, and their tribal-battening-down-the-hatches could not stop God from loving them to the very end. And beyond the very end to the very very end – whatever that might look like.

Let us pray: Dear Lord, again and again we pray that you open our hearts and minds, that you keep us honest and curious, non-judgmental, and non-reactive. For we need all of that and more if we are to truly love and serve our neighbor. You are our Savior, the Messiah, our search for love is over for love is found in you. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Matthew 22:34-40

February 15, 2018

When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?”

He said to him, “’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” Matthew 22:34-40

At what point did we make it so complicated? Love God and love your neighbor as yourself. That seems so clear, so simple, so eminently do-able. But somehow those simple words of Jesus resulted in fractured communities competing with each other to define exactly what that would look like in real life. And that was just in the first few decades after Jesus died. It eventually got even worse. Today there are tens of thousands of competing voices in the world, all clamoring about how they have this “following Jesus” thing figured out better than anybody else.

Is it really as simple as “where two or three are gathered together they will inevitably come up with something to argue about?” Or is it not quite as simple as it looks?

Every time I read the word “love” in the New Testament I try to remind myself of the specificity of the Greek language around that word. If I don’t do this little mind exercise I will inevitably veer away from the text and miss the deeper point.

As you have no doubt heard many times in your life, there are three words for love in the Greek language in which the New Testament was written.

Eros”, the root of “erotic” is love based on body chemistry that seeks to USE the beloved.

Philios”, a root word in “Philadelphia”, the city of brotherly love (unless a Super Bowl is in sight), is love based on our emotions and feelings. It is love that seeks to ENJOY the beloved.

Agape” is loved based in our minds, our wills, in our decision-making functions. It is a love that decides, in a self-sacrificing way, to SERVE the beloved.

It should come as no surprise that “agape” is the word that Matthew (and all of the other New Testament writers) use when Jesus says we are to agape God and agape our neighbor as we agape ourselves.

That’s why it isn’t as simple as it seems. We don’t get to “eros” God and play “what’s in it for me?” We don’t get to “philios” Jesus and ignore the needs and lives of our neighbors. We don’t get to…but we do. And there is always someone out there promising a better deal.

It is far more difficult to slow down and think clearly. In every situation and moment of life, what does it look like for me to make choices that reflect God’s love and will for my life? What does it look like, and what does it call forth from me, to make a positive difference in the life of my neighbor? We might reach different conclusions but at least our love will be in the right place.

Let us pray: Teach us O Lord, in all things, what agape means in our lives. Guide our minds, fill our imaginations, that we might be wholly yours. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Matthew 22:23-33

February 14, 2018

The same day some Sadducees came to him, saying there is no resurrection; and they asked him a question, saying, “Teacher, Moses said, ‘If a man dies childless, his brother shall marry the widow, and raise up children for his brother.’ Now there were seven brothers among us; the first married, and died childless, leaving the widow to his brother. The second did the same, so also the third, down to the seventh. Last of all, the woman herself died. In the resurrection, then, whose wife of the seven will she be? For all of them had married her.”

Jesus answered them, “You are wrong, because you know neither the scriptures nor the power of God. For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven. And as for the resurrection of the dead, have you not read what was said to you by God, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is God not of the dead, but of the living.” And when the crowd heard it, they were astounded at his teaching. Matthew 22:23-33

Today is Ash Wednesday. It is the first day of the season of Lent – a 40 day season of preparation, of renewed devotion, of discipleship training, all pointed toward Holy Week and the promise of Easter resurrection. This is the holiest season of the Christian year. We begin today with worship that includes the imposition of ashes. Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.

In today’s text, Jesus is confronted by the Sadducees. This is the wing of Judaism, the Levitical priesthood, that ran the operations in the temple. Regarding the Bible, they were the strict constitutionalists. They believed that only the Torah, the first five books of Moses, were the holy writings of God. Since the Torah doesn’t directly speak to the resurrection, the Sadducees taught that, when we die, we simply return to the dust out of which we came. Just as it says in Genesis 3:19, “By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

Thus their silly question about the woman passed down through seven brothers wasn’t really a question. It was a verbal sneer, delivered with snickers, by those who clearly thought themselves superior to this country bumpkin peasant Jesus. Jesus offered a sharp response but it didn’t really matter. They weren’t listening. They were so confident about themselves and their positions that their minds were closed. They had the whole God thing all figured out and they could back it up with sacred writings that secured their religious authority and community standing. They had a good gig going. Jesus wasn’t going to mess it up.

And it turned out…he didn’t. Even as he was arrested and beaten and crucified, the band played on in the temple. Even as Jesus hung from the cross, pigeons and lambs and wheat and bulls continued to be barbequed in the temple. The moneychangers did their thing. The Sadducees took their cut. All was good. Until the Roman army came through town. They starved the population before attacking and destroying the city. The holy temple was reduced to rubble. The powerful Sadducees were reduced to a historical footnote. And the Christian movement began to spread like wildfire through the empire.

Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.

On the one hand, the Sadducees were right. There isn’t much directly said about the resurrection in the Torah. But God wasn’t through writing the story. There is no question that we return to dust when we die. Embalming slows, but doesn’t stop, the process. Cremation hurries things up a bit. These earthly bodies of ours aren’t meant to last forever. But the story doesn’t end there.

On the third day, Jesus rose from the dead. That is good news to dust like us. Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return. Until God breaths resurrection and finally births new life.

Let us pray: Dear Lord, on this day of ashes and repentance, keep us mindful of the holiness, the sanctity, and the brevity of this life. Confident in the promises of resurrection, guide us in making the most of this and every day that comes to us as your gift of life. Receive us at the end and revive us every day until then. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Matthew 22:15-22

February 13, 2018

Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said. 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. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?”

But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius.

Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” 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.” When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away. Matthew 22:15-22

Not long after President Trump took office he had a new presidential challenge coin struck in his own honor. That isn’t unusual. It turns out that people do that. The surprise was how different it was than his predecessors. It was bigger. Thicker. More golden. The national motto was replaced with his campaign slogan.

Unlike modern challenge coins, which are intended to be personal gifts, souvenirs, the coins struck with the image of the Roman emperor were legal tender throughout the empire. They were symbols of the emperor’s power, and yes, of his ego. In Jesus’ day, emperors expected to be worshipped, not just obeyed. They claimed divinity, not just political power. In the years before Jesus, Julius Caesar was not just the civil authority, he was Pontifex Maximus, the chief priest of the Roman state religion.

All of that, for Jews, constituted idolatry of the most blatant and repulsive type. That is why the coinage of the empire was not allowed to be used in the temple. The money changers sat at their tables, converting Roman money into temple money that could then be used to purchase sacrificial animals. It was a system saturated with graft and corruption. It literally turned the temple into a central bank.

The irony in this story of the Pharisees and their question about paying taxes is that they just happen to have a denarius with them. Jesus doesn’t. A single denarius wasn’t worth much, basically the daily wage of a laborer, but the symbolism was far more important. The Pharisees were participating in the idolatrous Roman economy in a way that Jesus wasn’t. Once again, the charges that the Pharisees brought against Jesus condemned themselves, not Jesus.

Thus this story isn’t about paying taxes, it is about idolatry. It is about devotion. Who gets our hearts and minds? Worldly powers and authorities or God? Who brings peace, who is the source of justice, who will we lay down our lives for? The emperor or God?

Notice that Jesus doesn’t reject some level of authority to the emperor. He recognizes that the emperor has a place in God’s rule. People can’t live without some level of coordination and cooperation. Sinful people can’t live without some degree of rules and regulations that level the playing field of life. People need some way of sorting that all out.

But make no mistake, idolatry is idolatry. Today, with April 15th looming ahead, Jesus reminds us that the ultimate authority of our lives is not an office taken with force or freely elected. The ultimate authority over our lives is God.

Let us pray: Gracious Lord, you have our hearts, our souls, our minds, our strength. In you we find our lives. In your will we find our purpose, to serve our neighbor, to do our part. Save us from the idolatrous allure of money and power and position and prestige. Guide the thoughts and actions of those given positions of authority in our lives, that justice might be their goal, and integrity their path. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Matthew 22:1-14

February 12, 2018

Once more Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son. He sent his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding banquet, but they would not come.

Again he sent other slaves, saying, ‘Tell those who have been invited: Look, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet.’ But they made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business, while the rest seized his slaves, mistreated them, and killed them. The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city.

Then he said to his slaves, ‘The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.’ 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.

“But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe, and he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?’ And he was speechless. 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.’ For many are called, but few are chosen.” Matthew 22:1-14

Whenever I read the words “kingdom of heaven” or “kingdom of God” or “reign of God” I always and immediately do a quick translation in my mind – a kingdom is a relationship. Thus each of these phrases paint a picture of what it means to live in relationship with God. A kingdom, first and foremost, is a relationship. None of the rest of what we associate with the word “kingdom” (thrones, crowns, castles, armies, lands) matters. Those are trivial compared to the heart of the matter – the king is the king and the subjects are the subjects. So we start there.

Then I want to notice a little difference between this parable of the kingdom and the one we saw in Matthew 20. There it began with the words, “the kingdom of heaven is like” but this parable begins “the kingdom of heaven may be compared to.” To me, that changes how we hear it.

The story begins with the king’s plan for a wedding banquet. His invited guests ignore the invitation or worse, mistreat the slaves who bring word from the king. Their disrespectful attitude and actions toward the king results in their deaths and their cities being destroyed. This is a king who takes party planning seriously. For a long time, people thought this was the way God acted toward the people of Israel who rejected the prophets and did their own thing.

The king doesn’t want his food to go to waste so he changes his own expectations. He sends his troops to gather anybody within range, regardless of their “worthiness” and invite them to come to the banquet. The hall is quickly filled to bursting with hungry party goers. Now this seems to be a different picture of how God connects with people.

But then the king notices someone who is inappropriately dressed. He treats him harshly and kicks him out. Now there is a surprise, no wonder the guest is speechless. How was he supposed to know? All he knew is that he was invited to attend and he willingly showed up. What is wrong with this king? How could you possibly trust a king like this one, a king who changes on a dime and treats his subjects so cruelly? This king sounds much more like the earthly tyrants that the readers of Matthew knew all too well.

How different this king was than the loving, healing God people could see modeled in Jesus! When I compare this king to the kingdom of heaven I’ll take the kingdom of heaven every time.

Let us pray: Gracious Lord, unlike the capricious, power hungry, entitled earthly kings who abused their positions and used people like pawns, your reign is one of peace. Of love. Of justice. Of inclusion and community rather than exclusion and caste. May we meet you as you are, just as you meet us as we are. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Matthew 21:33-46

February 1, 2018

“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.

When the harvest time had come, he sent his slaves to the tenants to collect his produce. But the tenants seized his slaves and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. Again he sent other slaves, more than the first; and they treated them in the same way.

Finally he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.” So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him. Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” 

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.” 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’? 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. The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.” 

When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them. They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, because they regarded him as a prophet. Matthew 21:33-46

I got hung up on this parable. I’ve had to spend a few days trying to figure out why.

I think that begins with how I find myself reacting to the “traditional” interpretation of it. That usually means seeing it as a thinly veiled allegory. Here’s how that goes: The landowner is God. The vineyard is the world. The tenants are the Jews throughout the Old Testament and all the way up to Jesus. The harvest time is when God decides to gather in the harvest of goodness that God expects to see in the vineyard. The tenants, those who see themselves safeguarding the religious rules of Judaism, are those who refuse to give to God what belongs to God. They want to keep everything for themselves.

The slaves going to claim the harvest are the prophets down through the years and the son is Jesus – each of whom was rejected. Moral of the story: Jesus and all who believe in him are good, the Jewish religious leaders, all the way down to the Pharisees opposing Jesus, are bad.

And what is worse, they recognize this themselves and yet do nothing about it. They don’t change their thinking or their behaviors. Why? Because they feared the crowds.

I’m not hearing the parable that way today. I think it is because of the pervasive nature of “victim thinking” and “us vs. them” thinking that dominates our lives. We are constantly bombarded these days with people telling us that other people are out there to get us. Preying on our fears, fueling our anxiety, demonizing the “other”, and spinning everything so that “we” look good and “they” look bad. So we read a parable like this and we distance ourselves from it. We stand back and watch. We cheer for the good guys and hiss at the bad guys and the parable leaves us untouched.

But what if we step into it? What if we see how the tenants have poured their lives into caring for the vineyard of an absent landlord and then realizing that they won’t taste the harvest? We would be angry too. What we if see ourselves as the slaves, unwittingly sent into a struggle that we didn’t see coming? Just doing our jobs, we find ourselves attacked. What if we see ourselves as the son, coming to our father’s vineyard, expecting to be respected, only to be killed? And what if we see ourselves as the tenants at the end, suddenly realizing the darkness and foolhardiness of what we have done?

And what if we see ourselves as the Pharisees, way more interested in pleasing the crowd and keeping our positions than of seeking the truth and following God?

If we enter this vineyard, seeing ourselves everywhere, we suddenly realize that the entire place is a mess. It doesn’t require a subtle change in management, a few new rules or new interpretations of old ones. It is far too broken for that. It needs a wholesale do-over. A fresh start. A new birth.

Let us pray: Gracious Lord, you know us so well. You know the depth of our fears and our anxieties about the world around us, the world inside of us. You know how easily we distract ourselves from what matters and how quickly we divide ourselves from one another. We have really made a mess of things. Come to us. Open our hearts and minds that your love, which alone can heal all that hurts, may have free rein in our thoughts and actions. In Jesus’ name. Amen.