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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.

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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.

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.

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.