Monday, September 28, 2020

Produce the Produce (Reflections on Pentecost 18, Year A)

"The Wicked Tenants" Martin Van Valckenborch (Flemish, 16/17th cent.)

“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.” (Matthew 21: 43) 

Don’t you just love a good Biblical allegory? It’s pretty clear to me the story Jesus is telling in the assigned Gospel lesson for Pentecost 18, Year A (Matthew 21:33-46) is meant as an allegory. I wouldn’t go and take it too literally. If you do, you have to admit that the landowner in the story is one criminally stupid dufus. This guy ought to be prosecuted for reckless endangerment for sending his servants and his own son out to confront a colony of murderous lawbreakers. I mean, how dumb is this guy..? Didn’t he realize he was dealing with cutthroats when he sent out the first group of rent collectors?

But I digress. 

Verse 45 clearly tells us that Jesus is telling a symbolic tale. We usually interpret this story as meaning the Jewish leaders have failed to listen to the prophets and to Jesus, so God is taking the kingdom away from them and giving it to more deserving tenants—namely, us.

 The problem with this interpretation, however, is that it tends to make us feel all warm and special but doesn’t teach us anything. I think we in the Church would be wise to cast ourselves in the role of the wicked tenants and see this parable as a warning against our own tendency towrds complacency. When we hear this parable, we might want to ask ourselves what we in the Church are here to do. What is our “produce” supposed to be? Are we yielding good grapes or “wild grapes” as the prophet Isaiah describes in the First Lesson for this Sunday (Isaiah 5:1-7). 

Recently my wife showed me a video on facebook of a group of Christians protesting on the main street of our suburban South Jersey town. One guy wore a T-shirt which proclaimed “CORONAVIRUS IS GOD’S PUNISHMENT FOR FEMINISM.”[i] After I threw up a little in my mouth, I thought to myself, “Really, dude..?? With a dangerously changing climate, racial injustice, and economic catastrophe, this is where you’re going? For all God has given you, is this the produce—the rotten fruit of judgmental narrow-mindedness—that you’re giving back? If this is the fruit of your faith in God, no one wants to eat it.” 

Personally, I’ve always been pretty proud of the produce of our little urban congregation in Northeast Philly. Some of it is literally produce—veggies grown on our church lawn to feed the hungry. Some of it is shelter for the homeless. Some of it is a meal and companionship for the elderly homebound. Some of it is Christmastime encouragement for orphaned children. And a lot of it is community space so addicts and their families can get healed, seniors can fellowship together, and an immigrant community can worship in their own way. Pride, however, can easily morph into complacency. We’d do well to remember that it is only in looking outward—in producing a good crop for others—that we’ve survived as long as we have. 

Sunday, October 4th is the feast of Saint Francis of Assisi, the 13th century Italian monk who saw the Church getting sleepy and just going through the motions of Christianity. God called Francis to wake Christians up, to focus God’s people on care for the world God created and all the creatures in it, and to take up their responsibility to the poor and the infirm in their midst. I’ll admit it’s pretty hard to be socially active during a pandemic, but this virus can’t plague us forever. If any community of faith survives, the people of that community must know what they are surviving for. We are all called, like Saint Francis, to be renewers of the Church. God’s will will be done through us or in spite of us. If we are not zealous in our mission, the vineyard will be given to others. 

God bless, my friend. Keep safe.

[i] Seriously. He did. You can’t make this stuff up. You can read about the heretic idiot in the T-shirt by clicking here.

Wednesday, September 23, 2020

By What Authority? (Reflections on Pentecost 17, Year A)


"By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” (Matthew 21:23)

 Fake news. For my money, this is one of the most insidious expressions of our time. We already have COVID-19, but do we really need a second pandemic? A pandemic of lies, social media propaganda, gossip, disinformation, and an a concentrated effort by some to urinate in the swimming pool of public information and cause us all to question what to believe and who to trust? Are climate change and the coronavirus real, or did “science” get it wrong? Is there expertise or only opinion? Who can speak with true authority?

 In the Gospel lesson appointed for Pentecost 17 Year A in the RCL (Matthew 21: 23-32), the official “authorities” are questioning the legitimacy of Jesus’ authority. This story comes right on the heels of the Palm Sunday story. Jesus has ridden his donkey into Jerusalem, boldly accused the leaders of the people of ripping off the poor, and has set up shop and begun to teach right in the holy temple itself. You can imagine how p.o.’ed  this has made the priests and the elders. They demand to know by what authority Jesus can do and say these things.

 This doesn’t upset Jesus. He asks them a sneaky question of his own about authority. Where did the authority of John the Baptist come from? The priests and elders can’t answer this question. If they admit that John was a prophet sent by God, they’ll reveal their own hypocrisy by their refusal to repent when he called for repentance, compassion and equity[i]. If they denounce John, they’ll anger the crowds and reveal that they don’t really represent the people at all. All they really care about is their own prestige and power. So..? They give a mealy-mouthed, non-committal answer which gives Jesus the opportunity to tell a little parable which says, in effect, actions speak louder than words. These guys may have all the “correct” doctrine, but what they have done has ultimately been self-serving and oppressive.

 What gives Jesus authority? It’s not just his words but his deeds. Yes, he’s taught powerful lessons, but the people have also seen the sick healed, the children blessed, the outsiders welcomed, and the sinners given a second chance. They have seen the hungry fed. They have seen the righteous sit at table with the outcasts, and they will soon see the Son of God hang on the cross.

 Have you ever asked yourself why you are a Christian? I’d be willing to bet it’s because someone with Christ’s authority represented the Gospel to you. Maybe it was your mom or your grandmother or some other relative, but somewhere along the line you met a person whose walk with God in kindness, gentleness, and heroic faith was all the authority you needed. Righteousness is its own authority. So is love. So is compassion.

 If you’ve believed in this authority, you’re also called to be this authority. We are all called to go to work in the vineyard, to be faithful and generous and kind and forgiving and non-judgmental and honest so that faith may be restored. We are called to care for one another so that others may believe. We are called to be restorers of confidence.

 May the peace of God which passes our understanding keep your heart and mind in Christ Jesus.

[i] See Luke 3:7-14

Wednesday, September 16, 2020

Infuriating Generosity (Reflections on Pentecost 16, Year A)

Salomon Koninck "Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard" (Dutch, 17th Cent.)

“So the last will be first, and the first will be last” (Matthew 20:16)

 Man! Don’t you just hate this parable (Matthew 20:1-16)?! I mean, where does Jesus get off saying the Kingdom of Heaven is like this whopper of a tall tale he’s telling us? For lots of folks this story is nothing short of infuriating. It violates our sense of justice to see undeserving people get something they haven’t earned. You might say that Jesus is preaching downright socialism, by God! How dare he?!! Doesn’t he know that here in America good, decent people work for a living and earn their rewards? It’s all the others—lazy welfare cheats and illegal aliens—who expect something for nothing. And, while we’re on the subject, what’s up with student loan forgiveness? We had to pay back our debts, and these kids should too, dang it! The same with universal healthcare. If they want it, let ‘em go out and work for it!

 Isn’t this the way we feel sometimes? We’d be more comfortable with deserving folks being deprived than we are with someone we think is undeserving getting blessed. If we’ve struggled or suffered, we look down on those who haven’t. I’ll admit there’s something to be said for suffering. At best, it has the power to ennoble us. But: it can also make us self-absorbed, mean, and petty. The first-hired laborers in our Gospel story feel entitled. “We have born the burden of the day and the scorching heat,” they say. But perhaps they have not considered the struggle and the suffering of the late arrivals. The landowner asks those in the marketplace at the shank of the day, “Why are you standing here idle all day?” Their mournful reply is, “Because no one has hired us.” They’re unemployed, and no work means no food for themselves or their families.

 When I was about ten years old my dad was laid off from his job. He was a middle-aged engineer, the victim of an industry-wide slow-down. He was out of work for the next fourteen months and had to apply for government assistance—a necessity which was murderous to the pride of a man who believed that good people went to work and only bums went on the dole. He worked off and on for the next fourteen years until he was able to take his Social Security and pension. He went from one company to another, following the fortunes of government contracts and the shaky economy, never again feeling that he would have the job security the American Dream had promised. I learned early in life that unemployment brings its own special kind of suffering.

 The behavior of the landowner in our parable is as disturbing as the grumbling of the “entitled” early hires. He tells his foreman to gather the workers and pay the most recent hires first. This violates a rather common sense rule of business: Don’t let an employee know what other employees are paid. Doing this can only incite comparison, envy, and discontent. Nevertheless, this landowner acts like a show-off and parades his largess to the late hires in front of the whole workforce. Predictably, the griping ensues.

 Personally, I don’t have a problem with what the landowner has done, even though prudence would dictate that he follow the advice about almsgiving Jesus gave us in the Sermon on the Mount.[i] His show of generosity, you see, forces all the workers to confront the issue. Do they value their sense of justice and pride over the welfare of others? Are they choosing to weaponize their own struggles in order to prove their entitlement? What do they value more—compassion for fellow human beings or their sense of personal superiority? And how, do you think, would Jesus want them to answer these questions? How would you?

 God’s way often makes us unsettled, and forces us to ask questions of ourselves which we might be embarrassed to answer. We all have a little bit of Jonah in us, don’t we?[ii] It galls us to see the “undeserving” spared.

 I love that the book of Jonah ends with a question and not an answer. In this stressful, precarious moment in history it might be best that we let ourselves be challenged by the scriptures.

 God be with you.

[i] See Matthew 6:2-4.

[ii] See Jonah 3:10-4:11, our First Lesson for Pentecost 16.

Wednesday, September 9, 2020

Debtors' Prison (Reflections on Pentecost 15, Year A)


Claude Vignon (French, 17th Cent.) "The Unmerciful Servant"

“And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt.” (Matthew 18:34) 

The above verse from our appointed Gospel for Pentecost 15, Year A (Matthew 18: 21-35) is a pretty nasty verse, don’t you think? A man is condemned to torture in a debtors’ prison for the crime of un-forgiveness. But, if you think about it, the lack of forgiveness, the gripping on to grievances and wounds, is a type of torture. God may not condemn us to it. Rather, we condemn ourselves to it.

 Come on. Be honest. Haven’t you ever enjoyed the luxury of holding a grudge? Haven’t you relished the thought that there was another human being whose character was more despicable than your own? Have you ever made the mental list of all the things you did for that person and all the times they showed callous ingratitude? Of all the rude things they’ve said? Of all the times thy have neglected your dignity? You may have just luxuriated in your indignation as you became exactly the sort of bitter complaining person you can’t stand to be around.

 Face it: we love to keep score. Peter has this thing all figured out. He’s going to count seven times before he gets to designate someone irredeemable. Seven’s a good number, right? In Hebrew numerology it combines four (the number of earthly completeness) with three (the number of God’s completeness). Seven screw-ups and it’s complete—you can now hate that person with impunity.

 In a way, Peter has a point. I mean, just how much of someone else’s toxicity are we supposed to take? In last week’s Gospel Jesus counseled us to treat an unrepentant offender like a gentile or a tax collector, which is another way of saying that the offender is outside of the society (Mt. 18:17). Yeah, sometimes you have to draw the line. But to forgive does not mean to excuse. There still may be consequences for someone’s actions, but how we regard that person in our own hearts is a different matter.

Jesus isn’t into keeping score. Jesus demands forgiveness that goes beyond our ability to count up wrongs. The slave in the parable has racked up a debt so high no one could repay it. It’s actually an exaggerated amount almost equivalent to the national debt of a small country. Jesus likes to use a little hyperbole for effect at times, but the point is this guy is unable to make things right. Fortunately, he serves a gracious lord who takes pity on him.

 Here’s the problem: the guy doesn’t appreciate the magnitude of what has been done for him. I figure he’s like some degenerate gambler who keeps getting deeper and deeper into the hole while he blames everybody else for the poor choices he’s made. He has no introspection, and, therefore, no repentance. To fear the consequences of your wrong-doing is not the same as being contrite for having done wrong. He just doesn’t seem to get the concept of his master’s grace.

 And that’s a problem. You see, I don’t believe that there can be forgiveness without repentance. By this I don’t mean to say that you have to know the one who has wronged you is sorry for their action before you can forgive them. I mean that each of us has to repent before we can forgive another from our hearts. We have to come to an understanding of who we are and who God is.

 Some wrongs—racial injustice, child abuse, genocide, you name it—are just too enormous for score-keeping. If we took the “eye-for-an-eye” attitude the whole world would be blind! There are times when we lack the ability to get past our wounds. But God never lacks that ability. When we can’t let go of hurt we can still lean on the knowledge of God’s grace.

 I love the story of Joseph in Genesis that’s used as the First Lesson companion for this Gospel (Genesis 50:15-21). Joseph has every good reason to hate his brothers and seek revenge, but God has spoken to him in his suffering and changed his heart. That’s why he’s able to forgive. He’s come to a new understanding of the magnitude of God’s unconditional goodness and love.

 Sometimes we have to know ourselves as forgiven before we can offer forgiveness to others. The choice is up to us: live in grace or in a debtors’ prison of our own making.

  May the peace of God which passes our understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.

Wednesday, September 2, 2020

When Someone Causes Trouble (Reflections on Pentecost 14, Year A)

People embracing and gathering in a circle | Free Photo


(This is only a story. Any similarities between actual events or persons living or dead is entirely coincidental.) 

Once upon a time there was a tiny Lutheran church with a small praise ensemble. One of the musicians (let’s call him “Bob”) was a very well-meaning but stubborn man. God had given Bob tremendous musical talent. Unfortunately, Bob also had an enormous ego and wanted everything his own way. This caused friction within the praise team and much consternation for the church’s worship committee, the Praise Director (let’s call him “Joe”), and the congregation in general. Many of the Lutherans grumbled about Bob. Some of them complained to the pastor, but none of them confronted him directly about his behavior. 

One day, after a particularly acrimonious verbal run-in with Joe, Bob came to see the pastor. The pastor was a very timid man who was uncomfortable with inter-personal conflict, but he invited Bob to his office to hear him out. Bob sat down in a chair and in his very self-important stentorian voice declared, “Pastor, the trouble with Joe is he just doesn’t listen!” 

The pastor thought about this statement for a moment. He never liked to contradict anyone, and always thought everyone should have their say. He had tried to reason with Bob in the past, and knew this would be difficult. After a pause, and screwing his courage to the sticking-place, the pastor replied, “Joe doesn’t have to listen, Bob. He’s in charge. He talks and you listen.” 

This reply incensed Bob. Realizing he had no ally in the pastor, he stormed out of the church and was never heard from again. Although the praise team found themselves bereft of Bob’s talent, a wave of relief wafted over them and the congregation in general. It was as if the clouds had parted and warm sunshine shone down upon them. 

THE above parable illustrates a point: Even in the church there are people who misbehave and need to be called out on their inappropriate shenanigans. This has always been the case. Even the community for which our evangelist Matthew wrote his Gospel had their own contentious issues. It’s always wise for us to remember that the church is not a country club for saints but a hospital for sinners. If you go into a hospital, don’t be shocked if you run into sick people.

 When a member gets out of line, it’s incumbent on us to see options other than getting all up in their face or passively pretending that nothing is wrong. The first option is always going to breed resentment in the malefactor. The second will just make resentment simmer in everybody else. That’s why Jesus gave us this interventionist plan to follow in our Gospel lesson for Pentecost 14 (Matthew 18:14-20). The one-on-one encounter protects the dignity of the person who has been causing all the fuss. This opens the door for rehabilitation and forgiveness, which is what the church should always be about. If this fails, Jesus tells us to try an intervention with two or three others. Having witnesses prevents a “he said/he said” situation. It also can impress on the offender the impact their behavior is having on the whole community. A complaint before the church council is the last resort, and I consider myself fortunate as a pastor that I have never been in a situation where this has had to occur.

 It’s never pleasant to have to ask someone to leave, but sometimes a little distance is necessary. Jesus, nevertheless, holds out the hand of mercy in verse 17. Gentiles and tax collectors were never beyond the reach of his love. The Syro-Phoenician woman (Matthew 15:21-28) and Matthew himself (Matthew 9:9-13) are examples of Jesus’ radical inclusivity. He was always trying to bring outsiders in. The WELCOME mat is always out at the door of the church, and Jesus is always telling us, “You belong here.” 

We have a duty to correct one another. We also have a duty to love and forgive one another. We’ll be on the right track if we do it Jesus’ way. 

God’s peace, my friend. Stay safe. Thanks for reading.