Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Putting First Things First

Scripture for the 19th Sunday after Pentecost includes Exodus 33:12-23; I Thessalonians 1:1-10; Matthew 22:15-22

There are moments in life when it comes crystal clear what matters most.

When your house is burning to the ground, but you’ve gotten your children out and they’re safely in your arms.

When your path report comes back positive, and you’re faced with having to decide how best to treat an illness that seems to reframe your life.

This theme of discerning what matters most is heard also in a story from years ago when an oppressive regime held a missionary family in house arrest. Word came that in 24 hours they must be packed, and must limit themselves to two hundred pounds of belongings. Father and mother and two children gathered what most mattered and packed it, set to go. When soldiers arrived, the captain looked at the baggage, shook his head, then turned to the parents and asked, “The children. Have you weighed the children?”

There are three vignettes suggesting that adversity may sharpen our recognizing and appreciating what matters most. But why wait for adversity to motivate us?

Our 2015 stewardship appeal invites us to ask ourselves, What do we most need—and what do we most need to let go of—as we walk the path of new life in Christ? Each colored paper stone represents someone’s answer to those questions. Help us build that path by laying a stone today. Don’t limit yourself to one stone. Help move us forward on our journey.

I traveled to East Longmeadow on Tuesday to attend the Bishop’s Fall Clergy Day. This time, that was Bishops plural, s’, as Episcopal Bishop Doug Fisher was joined by Bishop James Hazelwood of the New England Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
Joining Episcopal clergy that day were many of the Lutheran pastors from across Western Massachusetts. In small groups comprising both traditions we bit into today’s Gospel, the next episode in St. Matthew’s unfolding narrative of escalating hostility towards Jesus, from religious leaders who felt threatened by his teaching. In these encounters, as we saw last Sunday, Jesus does not retreat into protective self-isolation. He sends a return volley. He fulfills the divine trait expressed in Psalm 18, “With the pure you show yourself pure, but with the crooked you are wily.”

“Wily” isn’t a bad description of Jesus’s answer to the Pharisees and the Herodians, is it?
Catch the collusion going on here. The Pharisees organize this lynching party. Chapters back in Matthew, we’re told that the Pharisees had decided that Jesus must die: He was that much of a threat to their status quo. Who are these people?

Tax payers, all of them. The Pharisees, however, were resistant tax payers. They weren’t as radical in their resistance as the Zealots we hear about in the New Testament; they were more grumblers than activists. But because they could deliver a sharp political commercial, the Pharisees were popular. Grumbling is often intriguing in its own dark way—election season is always full of it, and often little else—but of course in the first century no one ran for office, no one got elected. This did not stop the Pharisees from stirring up popular protest against the regime of imperial Rome, in particular the costly census tax, imposed in the year 6 in the common era, when Judea became a Roman province. (Remember how the story of the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ begins, “In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered… while Quirinius was governor of Syria…”? That was not being registered to vote. It was for enrolling tax payers.

Thirty some years have passed, and that heavy imperial hand has kept reaching into the pockets of Judea. The Herodians in our story today represent the overt supporters of the Roman Empire: they had no problem paying the tax, for ultimately it lined the nest of their own prosperity as collaborators and quislings of the emperor. Their role in this story is to show how the Pharisees’ lynching party is truly a piece of bipartisan cooperation. They’ve crossed the aisle to join forces and make doubly sure this Jesus gets what’s coming to him.

They think they’ve set the perfect mouse trap by asking Jesus to decide just what the emperor has coming to him. By asking “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor?”, clearly they don’t mean to ask about imperial law, but about Israel’s religious law: does it allow unquestioning allegiance to Rome?

Here’s where a commentary comes in handy. By Roman law, the tax could be paid only in Roman coins, most of which contained an image of Caesar and words that were blasphemous to Jews, declaring Caesar divine, and calling him “high priest”. The coin itself became a symbol of the deeper problem, the idolatry that Caesar mattered more than the living God of Israel.

They were in the temple precincts, where custom forebade carrying the imperial coins. Money-changers, as we know from another famous story, exchanged currency. But look who has this unholy change rattling in their pockets. When Jesus asks, “show me the coin used for the tax,” it’s the Pharisees who have it! They talk the talk; they do not walk the walk.

Not surprised, Jesus aims his words like a laser beam: “Whose head is this? Whose title?” They answer as they must, “The emperor’s.”

In his words spoken next, does Jesus mean, “It’s his already, so let him have it…”? Is he saying, “The emperor now owns the economic system of Judea: You Herodians are making sure of that, and you Pharisees are complicit. Despite your grumbling about oppression and idolatry, look whose coins you carry here in the temple, where they should not be.

Their lynching party has turned into his chess match. As he declares Checkmate, he changes the terms of this confrontation by yoking to their civic duty (“Pay taxes”) their spiritual duty (“Pay attention to the claims of God”, “Pay homage to the one and only God”, “Pay forward with the generosity that God shows you.” Jesus redirects this confrontation to be about what God has coming to God.

They were amazed (says the New Revised Standard Version). They were astonished (says the New International Version). They were in shock (according to The New Interpreter’s Bible).

Hear what one commentator says. “The kingdom of God represented by Jesus embraces all of life. Indeed, Matthew could hardly advocate the separation of religion and politics. He pictures Jesus and the Christian community as belonging to the series of Israel’s prophets, who never made a split between religion and the political aspects of life.

“While Matthew is clear that loyalty to God is a different and higher category than loyalty to Caesar, this text is not instruction on how people who live in a complex world of competing loyalties may determine what belongs to Caesar and what belongs to God. It simply declares that the distinction between what belongs to Caesar (as some things do) and what belongs to God (the ultimate loyalty) must be made, and he leaves it to readers in their own situations to be ‘Jesus theologians’ who, in the light of his own life and teachings, actualize the distinction.”

In one of his many letters, C. S. Lewis wrote,

"Put first things first and we get second things thrown in: put second things first and we lose both first and second things."

Today, we baptize Claire and Ruby. We join their parents, Pete and Rachaele, and their Godparents, Jan and Eric, committing ourselves to encouraging and supporting these girls in their discerning what matters most, and in their practice of putting first things first.

We pledge our time and talent and treasure to make sure Ruby and Claire discover the divine image imprinted on them and on all people, and we pledge our readiness to help them feel and know and claim the titles inscribed on their hearts and minds today: Children of God, members of Christ’s Body, and heirs of the kingdom of God.

(The Gospel commentary quoted here is M. Eugene Boring’s, found on pp. 420-421 in Volume VIII of “The New Interpreter’s Bible”. C. S. Lewis’s words come from a letter dated 23 April 1951. I'm grateful to The Very Rev. Jim Munroe for introducing me to Lewis's letter and the story of the missionary family.)

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Walking the Walk

Scripture for the 18th Sunday after Pentecost includes Exodus 32:1-14; Philippians 4:1-9; Matthew 22:1-14

When I meet monthly with residents of our local nursing homes to celebrate the holy eucharist, I usually read the Gospel for the coming Sunday. It’s often my first encounter with a text I’ll be preaching on, a few days later. Maybe.

But not this time around. I chose instead Paul’s little sermon to the believers at Philippi. In my snap judgment, those frail but courageous sisters and brothers at Williamstown Commons, circled round in their wheelchairs, had been battered enough by life without having to make sense of the raging violence in Matthew’s chilling parable.

Whether I could then avoid it today remained to be seen; but for sure I could bring them a brighter dose of good news through Paul’s message about the peace of God and the God of peace.

At both nursing homes, I can count on the residents wanting to sing a favorite hymn. At Sweet Brook, it’s “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.” At Williamstown Commons, it’s “Amazing Grace.” If all we did at these services were the singing of their one favorite hymn, they’d likely wheel out of that room satisfied that they’d heard and sung good news that day.

Though I always announce the page number in their large-print hymnal (#93 for What a Friend, #4 for Amazing Grace), these folks don’t need the book for these hymns: By and large, they have the words inside them. Whether or not their eyesight lets them read the page, they know the words: “I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see.”

And on the heels of that hymn, Wednesday, came today’s collect: “We pray that your grace may always precede and follow us, that we may continually be given to good works.”

What is amazing about the Christian concept of grace is the omnipresence of this love which we neither deserve (says our Prayer Book catechism) nor recognize (most of the time), nor even desire (said our collect last Sunday) because we are too busy desiring otherwise: desiring stuff, success, satisfaction, relief, stimulation, release, admiration. What a list we have! What amazing goals! Maybe those are our favorite hymns: What a List We Have… Amazing Goals, How Sweet the Sound that Spends my Soul on Thee…

And along comes our 2015 stewardship appeal with the question, “What do you most need—or most need to let go of—as you walk the path in life?” Each of us is invited to lay stones in the path we’re building here in the center aisle, and let these stones represent your answers to that question.

This living metaphor of an expanding path is meant to take this community into closer communion with God, lead us to the table of new life, then aim us out into the world that needs us to give ourselves to good works. It is a foot path, not a highway; what it requires of us is not to see how fast we can get somewhere and how much we can accomplish, but to keep putting one foot in front of the other, moving deliberately (and gently, as Paul instructs the Philippians), letting go of worrying our way forward, choosing instead to pay attention to grace. Grace before us, grace behind us. Grace ahead of us to know the way, show the way, and meet us on the way. Grace following us to heal the damage we don’t intend to commit but do, grace to recognize by hindsight the gifts to be grateful for, grace to remember what we’ve learned.

So… what can we learn from Matthew’s little parable from hell? For one thing, never take a passage of the Bible out of its context. Remember that grace is behind us, and requires using our rear-view mirror to recognize it for what it is. Backspace just a verse or two and hear how chapter 21 ends (in Eugene Peterson’s “The Message”): “When the religious leaders heard Jesus’s parables, they knew he was aiming his words at them. They wanted to arrest him and put him in jail, but, intimidated by public opinion, they held back. Most people held him to be a prophet of God.”

Then today’s portion begins, “Jesus responded by telling still more parables.” He did not back down from the hostility he met. He countered it with a return volley.

This story of the wedding banquet presents his answer—or is it Matthew’s answer? Or is it the early Church’s answer?—to the question, “Who is it who are gathered into the embrace of God’s grace? Who is it who walk in the light and wisdom of God? Who are the enduring people of God faithful to God’s steadfast covenant love?”

The answer given in this tortuous parable is: Not the people who say that they are the heirs of God’s grace and favor, but the people who show that they are, by how they act. Not the ones who talk the talk, but the ones who walk the walk.

The action desired by the king in this story (so we can read the allegory to mean it is the action God wants) is that all should come to the wedding banquet he has set for his Messiah, the anointed one who embodies love and achieves justice by righting the ancient wrong.

Those who were first invited were expected to come because they would have identified themselves as heirs of God’s grace and favor—but they refuse to come, preferring their own busyness as they pursue stuff, success, satisfaction, relief, stimulation, release, admiration. What a list they have!

And those who finally do come may not yet have appreciated the generous impulse behind the invitation, and so they have not discovered their responsibility to allow grace to shape their generosity. In the language of today’s collect, they are not given to good works.

The fellow who is singled out for not dressing up appears to be made an object lesson—but we scratch our heads and wonder why. Reach for a commentary, and you learn that the proper dress, the wedding robe, stands for the new life of good works which is meant to be our response to the Gospel of grace. I’ll bet that first-century hearers of this story would have instantly thought of the plain white tunic, the simple shift worn by men and women and children when they were baptized.

“How did you get in here without a wedding robe?” asks the king. The only demand made by Jesus, (as it was by John the Baptist before him), is that we must intentionally turn from evil and towards God, from oppression to freedom, from greed to grace, from violence to peace—in order to enter the kingdom of God, repentance is the doorway.

This fellow has slipped- in some other way. It won’t work. To borrow other New Testament language, he has not worn the fine linen of righteous deeds. He is speechless when confronted because, having done no good works, there is nothing, and no one, to speak for him. He has not put on the Lord Jesus Christ.

We really have to work hard, to get the marrow out of the bone in this Gospel. I can’t think of a Gospel I’d rather not have to preach on, ever again.

But in times as violent as ours, let’s not rush to erase the struggles our first-century forebears had as they welcomed the gracious invitation to the wedding banquet while having to navigate a brutal world. So do we.

The central message of this crusty parable, if we can set aside the sputtering rage of conflicting ideologies, is that God invites us to a wedding banquet: this is one of Jesus’s favorite ways to describe the spiritual life and the purpose of religion. To be human is to be invited into the intimate and joyful community of a wedding banquet, where what is expected is intentional delight and love devoted to, and shaped by, that pulsing love at the center of the party, at the head table. Wow! So that’s what church is for!

And while we’re understandably turned off by intimidation (and this parable’s little cup overflows with that), we all can stand a dose of the message that God calls us not just to show up and sing our favorite hymns, but to repent of all those desirings that point our path not towards God but away; and to repent of the collateral damage we do. And freed by God’s grace in Jesus Christ, make way for the Spirit to move us to be given to good works, making known a gentleness that this world yearns to see (and so do we), making do with less worry and more of the promised peace of God so that the God of peace may reign on earth.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Our Cross Is Green

Scripture for the 16th Sunday after Pentecost includes Exodus 17:1-7; Philippians 2:1-13; Matthew 21:23-32

From the files of campus security at Williams College: "Friday, September 12, 2014,4:22 p.m. St. John’s Church: Officers received a report that students were climbing the exterior of the church. A Williamstown Police Department officer also responded. Officers identified four students who had already packed up their pads and climbing equipment and were about to leave. They admitted to climbing the church. Officers explained that for safety and liability reasons, as well as private property rules, they are not allowed to climb the church.”

There was a collision of authorities. “By what authority are you climbing this church?” ask the officers of the law. “By what authority are you telling us we cannot?” might have been a cheeky reply. We know what we’re doing. We’re good at it. And climbing the church is a whole lot more exciting and challenging than the climbing wall at the Field House…”

Who knows, maybe one of those students tried that confrontational approach, hence the listing of reasons—three of them—mentioned in the blotter.

I don’t know. I wasn’t at this end of our buildings that day at that hour. I was diligently at my workstation, attempting to work out with fear and trembling my sermon for that weekend. Darn it all! I missed all the action!

There’s a confrontation of authorities going on in Matthew’s Gospel today. Jesus has carried his itinerant ministry into the sacred precincts of the temple in Jerusalem. The clergy and Vestry are not pleased. They’re used to calling the shots. Nobody climbs their walls without permission. And this Jesus is, in their eyes, a nobody.

“Who gave you authority to heal the sick, feed the hungry, illuminate the blind, speak publicly to women and poor people and tax collectors and sinners? Huh? Who?”

Cheeky Jesus replies, “I will also ask you a 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?”

Ooh. That’s hitting the ecclesiastical authorities right where it hurts. Though the Gospel writers do not blame the religious leaders for John’s imprisonment and beheading—the political powers and principalities of Herod’s household get the blame for those perversions of justice—nonetheless, the grassroots spiritual, religious, and ethical movement that John blazed across Judea was every bit as threatening to the temple as the Jesus movement had become. Now Jesus, who held John dear and willingly submitted to his kind of baptism, Jesus now makes the righteous squirm.

Because the city is watching, listening. The walls of that temple have ears and eyes, as countless ordinary people come and go, climbing the rules of temple sacrifice, enriching the coffers of organized religion, in its collaboration with the Roman imperial forces of occupation. These same common people had flocked to the frontiers where John conducted his open-air preaching and baptizing, and here now Jesus is pressing the authorities to admit their choice to collude with the enemy rather than welcome a prophet from God.

The weak-kneed spokesmen for security at all cost answer, “Well, we’ll never know, will we?” Such proper Anglicans, these fellows. I can imagine a longer version of this story, one Matthew decided not to waste ink or vellum on, where the Archdeacon clears his throat and says, “On the one hand…” And the Canon Theologian interjects, “While on the other hand…”

So… if he can’t get a straight answer from the establishment, whom do you imagine Jesus addressing when he asks, “What do you think? What do YOU think?" Had he turned away from the quislings and now spoke into the great stairway filled with pilgrims in from the countryside, as he pitches to them his little parable?

About a man with two sons, whom he asks to go and work in the vineyard. “No way,” answers the first. “Sure, Dad,” answers the second. Then the parable does a pirouette, and the first son reconsiders his refusal, changes into his work clothes, and off to the vineyard he goes. At the same time, the glib promiser gets wrapped up in a video game and pretty soon it’s suppertime.

“Which of these two did the will of their father?” asks Jesus. I think it’s from the stairwell that we hear, “the first one!” Then I imagine Jesus turning back towards the champions of security to deliver this stinging message: “The truth is, people of the street are closer to the kingdom of God than you fearful souls afraid to think new thoughts lest the whole house of cards come tumbling down.”

Ouch. Just as this parable is aimed at us all, so is this warning that would have us avoid the closing of our minds.

The religion of Jesus Christ is not shy about the Ouch factor. He who “humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross” teaches us to “look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.”

As we look to the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, we see him high above the altar nailed to a cross, and the cross has about it the most astonishing characteristic. Do you see what I mean? It’s green. Why doesn’t that make us stop in our tracks and refuse to budge until we deal with it? His cross is green. It is the tree of life. It is God’s Yes to the world’s defeatist No. It is the color of hope. It is the band in the rainbow that binds our Ouch to the great Passion of God in Jesus. While you and I must deal with the pain of working out our own salvation with fear and trembling, that green is God at work in us, the grace enabling us “both to will and to work for God’s good pleasure.”

Whatever authority we find attractive and trustworthy—the authority of a political leader, the authority of a movement, the authority of a scientist, the authority of the Bible, the authority of our own experience—the grace of Christ’s green cross rises above them all. And the only answer from us that God finds authoritative (according to our parable today) is not what we say or what we think, but what we do, when we let our action be shaped by the grace of God already at work in us. And when our obedience resembles the obedience of Jesus Christ, should we be surprised if there is an Ouch factor? No. Nor should we be afraid of it.

A famous moment of conflict appears in our reading from Exodus, reinforcing the same message. No water. The Hebrew refugees, rescued from their bondage, are trekking across the desert and have run out of water. “Give us water to drink,” they chant in the direction of Moses. Or else.

“What shall I do with these people?” prays Moses to God, as those many tens of thousands (some scholars say three or four hundred thousand) voice their complaint. God instructs Moses to go on ahead of his people, take a few elders along, take in hand his walking stick, and demonstrate leadership.

Detailed instructions of exactly how are apparently not as important in the great scheme of things as is trust. We aren ‘t told whether it’s sooner or later, but this little scouting party reaches Horeb, where there is a wadi, an Arab name for a rocky watercourse, a wet riverbed in rainy season, dry as dust at other times—and perhaps this was a time soon enough after rainy season that there was water to be had by digging down around that rock.

This was not magic. This was work. This was working out their salvation in fear and trembling. This is the work of leadership. Some of the rabbis insisted that this rock at Horeb followed the Hebrew people on their journey until they crossed the Jordan and found the Promised Land. St. Paul, in one of his letters, gives a gloss on that story by announcing his belief that the rock at Horeb was Christ. Christ, the one who enables the holy digging of salvation. Christ, who is with us, always and everywhere, persuading us to not fear challenges and conflicts, even the global-scale challenges that confront us now, for he is already there, at work in the crisis, calling us to discern his work and join him in it.

Last Sunday, countless congregations and communities sent leaders on ahead of the rest of us, to the Peoples’ Climate March in New York. Two members of our parish community, Robin and Margie, were among the 300,000-400,000 marchers who gathered along Central Park West. At Steering Committee last week, Robin described how well organized this was, with marshals in green shirts directing marchers to drinking water and bathrooms. Funny, isn’t it, how meeting the needs of Water In and Water Out are so central to human security?

Robin told us how she marched with people from Bangladesh, where the rising ocean level threatens the very existence of that nation. The Ouch Factor of climate change in the poorer oceanic countries is truly one of sheer survival. St. Paul’s admonition to look not to our own interests, but to the interests of others was brought home as the World Summit at the U.N. revealed the fear and trembling of developing nations, and exposed basic questions such as what constitutes security in the face of climate change and how do nations help one another respond to insecurity?

As marchers made their way through those city streets, at an appointed moment the marchers stopped—an impressive accomplishment for 300,000-400,000 people (Moses would have been impressed)—and for two minutes of silence marchers raised their hands in the ancient posture of prayer, wordless, “as if the whole city went silent,” Robin said, ended by the tolling of church bells.

To what end? And by what authority will human change rise to meet the challenge of climate change? By the authority of action that is shaped by grace, that throbbing green in the cross of Christ. And if such action trains people to a finer care for the earth and all its life-forms—more room for grace, less room for greed—if such action transforms our understanding of security and insecurity, then we will become freer, better at hearing God’s Yes.