Monday, October 20, 2014

Engaging the Question

Jesus asked the Pharisees a clever question.  “What do you think of the Messiah? Whose son is he?”  The Pharisees knew the obvious answer.  “The son of David.”  (Mt. 22:42)  But Jesus had a not-so-obvious point to make using a very close reading of a fairly obscure passage.  But here’s the main thing.  Jesus made his point not as a statement but as a question.  He tossed the ball back to the Pharisees:  “If David thus calls him Lord, how can he be his son?”  (v. 45)  He invited engagement.
What interests me most is that the Pharisees were apparently trying to test Jesus in some way.  Jesus, though, attempted to engage them in a conversation.  He posed questions.  Questions invite further conversation.  Unfortunately, the Pharisees cut the conversation off.  “No one was able to give him an answer, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions.” (v. 46) 
I think the mistake the Pharisees made was concentrating on the answers.  Answers have a finality to them.  That’s the answer and that’s that.  Or, as we sometimes hear where I’m from:  “God said it.  I believe it.  That settles it.”  Questions invite further engagement and ongoing conversation in a way that answers just do not.
Jesus is much more about ongoing conversation than answers because ongoing conversation is fundamentally relational.  To be in conversation is to be in relationship.  That matters a lot more than answers. 
The Pharisees, like the Sadducees before them, stopped engaging.  That doesn’t leave much room for relationship.  And there is no salvation outside of relationship.  Not even Jesus can work with those who refuse to engage.  We don’t have to have the answers.  All we have to do is engage the question.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Might as Well Have Stayed Home

When you’re a bishop you get a lot of interesting mail.  Some of it is angry.  Some of it is humorous.  Some of it is angry and unintentionally humorous.  This is about a letter of the last sort.
I can’t remember what I said that set my correspondent off.  Something heretical about grace or the unconditional nature of God’s love, or I suspect, God’s call on the church to respond with unconditional acceptance and inclusion of everyone, absolutely everyone.  Someone who didn’t see it quite the same way wrote me what was intended to be a rebuke.  “If the Kingdom of God is as inclusive as you say it is,” the email read, “why would anyone want to be a part of it?”  I guess some people would rather just stay home if the wrong people get invited.
Well, there you have the basic problem.  It is one Jesus addressed in a parable about a king who gave a wedding banquet (Mt. 22:1-14).  The invited guests responded badly.  Some made flimsy excuses.  Others ignored the invitation.  Still others responded violently.  (It’s interesting that invitations to God’s banquet not infrequently result in violently negative reactions.)
When the original guests failed to accept, the king was not deterred.  He sent his messengers into the streets to invite everyone and anyone they could find.  They did so, to both good and bad, and the wedding hall was filled with guests.  I guess the original invitees wouldn’t have wanted to be there anyway, especially if they knew who eventually showed up.
But then, as Matthew tells this story, there’s one more curiosity.  Among the guests was a man who showed up not wearing the proper wedding garment.  With this, the king was not so pleased and has the man cast out. 
Scholars will tell you these two parts of the stories were completely separate sayings as Jesus actually told them, and that Matthew put them together simply because they both involved wedding banquets.  Who am I to argue with scholars, and I have no doubt they’re right. 
Still, if we’re lucky enough to get an invitation, I think it would behoove us to show up with our party clothes and dancing shoes on.  Otherwise, we might as well have stayed home, and in that case we deserve to get thrown out.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Judgment and Love

The parable Jesus told about a landowner who planted a vineyard and then leased it out to tenants (Mt. 21:33-46) appears to be about judgment.  I have begun to question that. 
The landowner planted a fine vineyard.  He put a fence around it, dug a wine press, and built a watchtower.  Then he leased it to tenants.  When the time of the harvest came, he sent his slaves to collect the produce of the vineyard as rent.  But the tenants killed the slaves and did not send the produce.  He sent more slaves.  The same result.  Finally, the landowner sent his son to collect the produce.  He also was killed.  Jesus asked his hearers what would be the natural result of this sort of behavior.  They replied, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give them the produce at the harvest time.”  Sounds like judgment to me. 
There is another story in the Bible about just such a vineyard, and it happens to be one of this week’s options for an Old Testament reading (Isa. 5:1-7).  The parallel is uncanny.  It is about another landowner who planted a vineyard.  He dug it and cleared it of stones and planted it with choice vines.  He built a watchtower in the midst of it.  He hewed out a vine vat in it.  Still, despite all the effort, it yielded inferior grapes.  And then Isaiah goes on to pronounce judgment on the vineyard, the removal of its hedge, the breaking down of its wall, its trampling down, its wasting away.  It would sound like judgment were it not for the way Isaiah begins his story:  “Let me sing for my beloved my love-song concerning his vineyard.” 
It is a song of love and a broken heart more than it is a prophecy of judgment.  It is a song of God’s wooing of the people as if a landowner tending the most beloved and cared for of vineyards even if it ends in disappointment.
Perhaps Jesus’ parable bears looking at again in light of the love song that its original hearers would have had in mind when Jesus told it to begin with.  Immediately after the answer that the tenants will no doubt be put to a miserable death, Jesus quotes Psalm 118 with reference to the son of the landowner who had been killed in the story and no doubt with reference to his own imminent death.  “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.”  And then he goes on to refer to that stone again in the very next verse after our reading for this week ends.  It is this.  “The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.”  Sounds like judgment, but is it really?
If we take the rejected cornerstone as a metaphor for Jesus, Jesus is not judgment.  Jesus is love.  Jesus came, he said, not to judge the world but that the world might live.  In Jesus, we are not broken by judgment.  We are broken by love.  And over and over, when we fall on the rock solid love of Jesus, what is broken are our own hearts.  What is crushed is not our spirits or our lives but our hardness of heart.  It takes the rock solid cornerstone to break the stone cold hardness of our souls.  If there is judgment in this parable that Jesus told, and in the love song that Isaiah sung, it is the judgment of love, which is perhaps the hardest judgment of all to face, and also the softest.

Monday, September 22, 2014


Jesus tells a little parable in this week’s gospel reading, Matthew 21:23-32, that rings true to me as the father of two sons.  I doubt it would be different if I were the father of two daughters.  At any rate, Jesus’ choice to make the characters boys hits home.
A father told his sons to go and work in the vineyard.  The first defied him, but later changed his mind and went.  His intentions were not good, at least at first.  The second complied, but then did not go.  We do not know whether he, like his older brother, also changed his mind, or whether he deceived his father from the beginning, so we can’t be sure what his intentions were.  I don’t think Jesus cared which it was.  It’s because the only thing we can be sure of is behavior. 
The point for the father was the working in the vineyard, and not what was in the heads of his two sons.  As a dad who has needed more than once desperately to get some yard work done, this also makes sense to me.  There is no indication that he held the older son’s defiance against him, which speaking as a father, I know is hard to do, but in the end, getting the work done matters more.  The point is the eventual behavior—that the boy went and worked in the vineyard.
Likewise, there is no indication that the father cared whether the younger son lied or changed his mind, only that he did not go and work in the vineyard.  Maybe that’s because fathers would have time for little else if they got bent out of shape every time they got lied to.  What matters, once again, is the behavior and not that the younger son’s intentions either to go (in which case he just changed his mind) or not to go from the very beginning (in which case he was lying).  What matters is his behavior, or lack thereof. 
There are other occasions for dealing with the relational consequences of not telling the truth.  For now, the point is that behavior is what matters.  Intentions, for good or for ill, are not nearly so important.

Monday, September 15, 2014

The Test of Freedom

After the Hebrew people were liberated from slavery in Egypt, after they crossed safely through the Red Sea and escaped Pharaoh’s army, after all the ways God had cared for them, there came a time when they grew weary of it all and longed for the days before their liberation.
The whole congregation of the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness.  The Israelites said to them, “If only we had died by the hand of the LORD in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.”  (Ex. 16:2-3)
The story of the Exodus is one of the world’s great stories of liberation.  Liberation, though, no matter how marvelous it may be, is still change.  And change is hard.  Liberation is particularly hard.  It means taking responsibility.  It means being at risk.  It means paying a price.  Freedom does not exist without cost, and the cost of freedom in ongoing.   The temptation as old as humanity itself is to trade freedom for slavery in order to avoid paying the price.
In the story from Exodus, God provided manna for the people to eat, but there was more to God’s provision of bread than met the eye.  Doing so was not simply a gift for the hungry people. Nor was it just a way to get them to stop their complaining.  It was a test.
“I am going to rain bread from heaven for you, and each day the people shall go out and gather enough for that day.  In that way I will test them, whether they will follow my instruction or not.”  (v.4) 
I’ve never noticed that detail before, that manna from heaven was not only a gift; it was a test.  Liberation from slavery and deliverance from Pharaoh were not only given to the Hebrew people by God; they were a test. 
Freedom is a test—a test to see what we will do with it.  So what will we?  Are we up to the responsibility? The risk?  The price?  God makes great promises.  Even promises must be accepted.  Big promises must be acted upon.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Exodus: Life and Death

The Exodus from Egypt.  It may be a pretty central story to the story of God as told in the Bible, but it is a pretty disturbing story nonetheless.  It is not only the story of the deliverance of the Hebrew people from slavery.  It is also the story of the destruction of Egypt.
Last week’s lesson (Ex. 12:1-14) was about the Passover, surely a central theme not only of the Jewish people, but of the Christian.  It is the beginning of the story of deliverance.  It contains the instructions for remembrance, remembrance in a deep sense, remembrance in a sacramental sense that makes the recalling of the great event of the past real and experienced in the present.  It is the story of the Seder.  It becomes the story of the Eucharist.
But even last week, the coming of deliverance was intertwined with death and destruction.  On the night God passed over the houses marked with the blood of an unblemished lamb, God also took the lives of all the firstborn of Egypt, animals and humans alike.  As the Hebrew people prepared for their liberation, plagues descended not only upon the house of Pharaoh, but on the houses of all Egyptians. 
This week’s lesson (Ex. 14:19-31) is similar.  The waters were parted and the Hebrew people walked through on dry ground.  The waters were rejoined and the army of Egypt was drowned.  Not a single person survived. 
It paints a picture of God that is at one and the same time marvelous and terrifying, hopeful and vengeful, life-giving and death-dealing.  It is a dramatic story.  It is a disturbing picture. 
I admit that I do not know quite what to do with that.  I cannot quite bring myself to see God in precisely the way described in Exodus.  Perhaps, I fear, that is because I have an easier time looking through the eyes of the Egyptians than I do through those of the Hebrews, an easier time identifying with the oppressor than I do, the oppressed.
And while I cannot quite bring myself to see God taking the firstborn of the children of the Egyptians nor calling the water back to cover and drown such a multitude in the Red Sea, I can recognize that my own view of oppression, wherever it is found, and my response to it, puts me squarely on God’s side or its opposite.  Life is in one.  Death pervades the other.  The story of the Exodus says this in quite a dramatic way, even a horrifying way.  Still, it gets at something important.  Whether we walk through the sea on dry ground or are drowned in the chaos may have less to do with God’s vengeance and much more to do with how we respond to oppression.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Community Property

The earliest beginnings of the Christian community experienced conflict among believers.  Jesus himself provided for it.  “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one.  But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses.  If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”  Sin even by one believer against another, disappointing though it is, is not new. 
Here is what is new.  Sin by one member of the community against another is not a matter just between them.  Sin within the community may not surprise us.  What may is that “That’s none of my business” has no place within the community.  We’re in this together.
Sin by one against another weakens not only those two and the relationship between them, but the whole. The Christian community is only as strong as the weakest relationship within it. 
Jesus also said, “Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”  What I think it means is that we either all go into heaven together bound by our conflicts or we all go into heaven together liberated from them.  I’m afraid that sin in the kingdom of heaven is community property.  I’m encouraged, however, that so is righteousness.