Reflection for October 19, 2014

 Isaiah 45:1-7, 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10, Matthew 22:15-22

Oh yes, we’ll get to the politics of Jesus in Matthew this morning. And the older politics of Isaiah for that matter. But did you hear that second reading. It’s from Thessalonians. It is the very beginning of Paul’s letter. So we have today perhaps the first words of the New Testament ever written. And  we have before us those wonderfully complex Macedonians to whom Paul is writing at the beginning of his career.
This letter of his is probably the first preserved writing from the early days of Christianity. I Thessalonians is written much earlier than the other material in the New Testament, including the gospels. This is one of our best windows into Christian life and faith before it became more polished and refined, the object of decades and then centuries of reflection, debate, and meditation. When this is written, Christianity as a faith had been invented yet. This is just the early Jesus movement going into a new area: Macedonia, north of Greece.
The entire letter is short, maybe three pages of the Bible. Yet we get a good sense of what these people were like. They were lusty, hot blooded, excitable, early adapters, wondering if the blood moon and other signs in heaven indicated that the world was coming to an end. They had warm, robust, and passionate friendships.  And they were tired of those old wooden, stone, and metal idols that did not seem to do the job when it came to religion. In some ways, it’s too bad that the Christianity that eventually emerged was not more Macedonian. Christianity would have certainly been more fun, and we would have probably had more parties and fewer wars.
When you read passages like this one this morning, even in English, you sense how much these people really liked each other. Friendship mattered in Macedonia and its principle city, Thessalonica. And it was friendship that bound the church and gave it life. It makes you think about how important friendship still is for people and the church. Today, when you leave this room, make a friend, or do something to keep one. Treasure somebody. And open yourself to a new friendship.
When you read Thessalonians this morning, you sense that the Way of Jesus was a strong combination of lofty words and deeds of power mixed together. Thessalonians didn’t just talk about things. These people did things together: made things happen with and for each other. It makes you think about how important our deeds as well as our words are in being the church. Today, when you leave this room, stop thinking about something: go ahead and do it. Go ahead and be hot blooded about something. We’re never going to be as enthusiastic as these first Christians were. But just delight in what you can do.
And when you read Thessalonians, you sense how much these people thought the world was coming to an end in just a few days. Now from our vantage point, we could focus on how wrong these excitable people were since the world did not end. But think instead on how right they still are. We don’t go on forever and ever. Things end. We die. And we all have less time than we think. Live your life the Macedonian way. Be ready for the end. This may be the last day, week, month, year you have. Live like you mean. Make amends and enjoy fully the days you have with the ones you love. Party hard and love even harder.
Now these folk were not perfect. In the later chapters of the letter, we find Paul telling the Thessalonians to rein it in a bit when it comes to sex. They apparently liked sex a lot. And they at first did not see how the various sexual behaviors had anything to do with Jesus. Shouldn’t they just do whatever they want? Paul doesn’t get all prudish on them, but he does say that in matters of sex, people should honor and respect each other, and not use other people.  And in an anything goes sexual environment, that’s not a bad guideline for any of us. People should honor and respect each other, and not use other people. This is perhaps the oldest Christian ethic written, and its not a bad one for economics or politics as well.
No they were not perfect, these Macedonian Christians. Some apparently had decided to quit their jobs because the end of the world was near. Paul suggests later on in the correspondence, that this may not be such a good idea. Just keep on working and supporting one another until the end does come.
Friendship, enthusiasm, passion, aware that things do not last forever, making the moment count.  This is the Christian life in Thessalonica. And may it be so for us.
As to the politics of Matthew and Isaiah, a few things might be said on the eve of the mid-terms. One is that Matthew appears to suggest some restraint on politics. That’s not a bad thing. We don’t feel comfortable endorsing, for example, specific candidates or parties in church.
And yet, Matthew’s formula suggests that Christians are involved in politics and economics, for all things in the end belong to God. That’s somewhat the politics of Isaiah in the first reading. Cyrus is a Persian emperor who defeats the Assyrian emperor who had defeated Israel. So Cyrus is an ally or friend of Israel. Isaiah sees Cyrus as an instrument of God’s care for the people. God uses those we do not expect to accomplish purposes we may not fully understand. Because in the end all things belong to God, even that appears unintended or accidental.
So although we are to practice a bit of restraint in politics — especially in our families around the Thanksgiving table; we are called as Christians to participate, to vote, yes vote. And to vote our conscience as informed by a just, compassionate, and merciful God. And since the world may not end tomorrow, it’s a good idea to advocate for peace and justice and fairness as we are given the power and the spirit in both word and deed. So let’s advocate together for the right as we see it. And in a couple of weeks, let’s all vote. On November 4 let’s all really render unto Caesar with that old Macedonian enthusiasm still flowing through our Christian veins.

Reflection for October 12, 2014

Isaiah 25:1-9, Philippians 4:1-9, Matthew 22:1-14

I don’t think the good news of God is apparent in the third reading this morning. From Matthew, we have one more parable that harshly condemns the established religious and political powers for rejecting the invitation to follow Jesus. And there is that over the top reaction to the violation of the dress code. I think these Matthew parables remind us how important it is to be open to new possibilities, and to accept God’s invitation to new life. Given how traditional we can become, and how stuck in our ways we can be, the parables are good for us. But they may not be good news.
So I would not like to focus on this story of Matthew. Nor would I want to focus of the first reading. This Isaiah reading has more of a sense of hope to it. There is the feast of fine things that comes following a period of destruction and despair. The poet is speaking about the recovery of the city of Jerusalem after it has been destroyed by foreign invaders. We often use this reading for funerals. The line about God ending the time of tears is especially touching.
The first and third readings speak of a feast, party, or celebration: a banquet if you will, to which all are invited and at which the good things of life are recovered or renewed. But what is on the menu at this good feast of God? What is served at the banquet to which we are invited? That question brings us to the second reading: this passage from Paul’s letter to the church at Philippi.
Now in the second reading, what is served at the banquet to which all are invited is something called a life of peace. Notice that Paul uses the word peace several times in this passage, and that a sense of peace sets the tone of the passage. So at the top of the menu card for this banquet would be something like “A Life of Peace.”
And then this banquet meal would be served in three courses. The appetizer is an ability to negotiate conflict: reconciliation. The main course is a confident joy sustained by spiritual practice and focus. And the desert served at the banquet is a quest for the good and true.
First, the appetizer for the banquet of peace is an ability to negotiate conflict. Now in the church we do not always get along. There can be disagreement, substantial disagreement about which we feel strongly. This has always been so. In the Philippian congregation Paul writes of the conflict between two strong willed women: Euodia and Syntyche. We don’t know what they were arguing about. It could have been anything from what was served at coffee fellowship to how the distribution to the poor was handled or who was in charge of the worship service or how the orphans were cared for or what kind of wine was served. We don’t know the disagreement was, and it really doesn’t matter. It happens. It’s a church.
But note what Paul says. He values and lifts up both sides of the argument, honoring the women. He asks them to come together, not on the issue, but on their common faith in Jesus. He moves to the common ground. And with the help of someone named Clement (we don’t know who this is either), with a sense of mutual regard and what is held in common, there is some kind of arbitration so that a common mind or sense of the faithful will emerge on thorny matters. Since human conflict is inevitable, both in and out of the church, this ability to negotiate conflict, to reconcile, is the appetizer for a life of peace. Think about peace in your own life. The first step toward that may be the resolution of some conflict. Reconciliation.
Second, the main course of the banquet of peace is a confident joy sustained by spiritual practice and focus. Here we are in the center of one of Paul’s most famous descriptions of Christian temperament. It was my Grandmother’s favorite passage from the Bible: Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
Here the main course of the banquet of God is a confident joy sustained by spiritual practice or prayer and focus on the love of God in Jesus. We are actually called to be happy. This happiness is sustained by spiritual practices such as consistent prayer and by intentionally focusing on God’s will and purpose rather than our own messes, knowing that God will be with us through the disasters and despairs of this life. Confident joy sustained by spiritual practice and focus is the main course of the banquet of peace.
Finally, the desert at the banquet of peace is a quest for the good and true. The banquet of peace closes with an ethical desert. We are called to strive for the good and the true, the honorable and the right. The desert does not weigh us down so that we need to take a nap at the end of the banquet. No, it is a refreshing call to go out and be the people of God, living as we ought. I have always liked the way this passage works on itself.
That there is a good and right, true and just is a given for Paul. There is a foundational sense of right and good. But Paul is not defining what that might be. What is good and right may change with circumstances and personalities and histories. And defining the good in the flux of life is difficult. But as we live on, we are always called to strive for the good and the right however that is best expressed and lived.
And note that this is an upbeat invitation to do the good. It’s fun. The tone is not dull drudgery. Doing the right is delightful in Paul’s encouraging words.
An ability to resolve conflict, a confident joy, and a striving for the right and good. These are the things on the menu of the banquet to which all have been invited.
Now sometimes, Isaiah reminds us, we are struggling with difficulties. And then we need to remember that the banquet will be coming soon.
And sometimes, Matthew reminds us, we need to accept the invitation to the banquet, to come to the menu of peace. All too often, consumed by violence or preoccupied with the illusions of pleasure, we reject the invitation. We miss the opportunity to rejoice in a life of peace. Or we come to the banquet but are not willing to engage in the difficulties of negotiation or spiritual practice or ethical living. And so we never really get beyond the door of the banquet hall.
But today, may that second reading shine in our hearts.

 

Reflection for October 5, 2014

Matthew 21:33-46

We have several things going on today, so I would like to be brief regarding the readings, focusing only on the story in Matthew about the violent tenants of the vineyard.
Today scholars reach into the dynamics of Palestine under Roman rule to describe Jesus as a leader of peasant unrest in response to economic oppression: as a person whose religious convictions led him to conclude that God would bring an end to the empire. This contemporary vision of Jesus is political, as he becomes a public voice for social justice, speaking truth to power. His message was threatening to the powers that be and he was savagely silenced by crucifixion. And there may be some historical truth to this account of things.
But I am of the mind that we probably never will be able to sort out the historical message of the Jesus of history. What we have is the strong memories of Jesus renewed and repeated in urban congregations in the larger cities of the Roman Empire. Jesus in these stories is more complicated.  And his relationship to the empire is ambivalent. And all of this is important as we look at the story of peasant unrest as told by Matthew.
It may be the case that there was a story told by Jesus to his Palestinian followers about a revolt in a vineyard. If that is the case, and this is what remains of that story, then it has undergone substantial revision as it became our reading this morning. For the revolutionary peasants in this story are not the heroes of Matthew’s version. They are the bad guys. And the absentee landowner is not the source of grave social injustice, but a just and good man, seeking only the best for the workers. The workers in the vineyard story, if originally told by a revolutionary Jesus, have been substantially revised from those striving for economic justice to violent terrorists.
Perhaps Matthew is the one who made the revision. In Luke the Beatitude is, “Blessed are the poor, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” In Matthew the Beatitude becomes, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Matthew may have been more interested in spirituality than economics.
And the spiritual message of this story is impressive. The tenants do not own the vineyard. They are to care for the vineyard.  Matthew’s story is a story about caring for God’s vineyard, about stewardship. And whenever a sense of greed overcomes our sense of gratitude for what is entrusted to us, we run into difficulty.
All of us are given resources and treasure to care for. It is not ever really ours. But God lets us use it. And we are to use it wisely, returning to God what is necessary for the vineyard to prosper.
All of us are given this planet and our world to treasure and to care for. It is not really ours. But God lets us live here, doing what we can to care for the world rather than plunder it.
All of us are given people, family, and friends, with which to share our lives in this vineyard. They are not really ours in any sense. But God lets us care for others and nurture people, as we entrust those around us to the One to whom they belong.
All of us are given an encounter with the good, the true and the right. These values are not really ours to control or even define in any real sense, but are loaned to us by God so that we can construct good and decent lives.
All of us are given at least some measure of health. Our health is not really ours to control in any real sense. But God calls us to care for ourselves as best we can, nurturing our health both private and public, as we entrust our very lives to the One who made and redeemed us.
But it is very easy to become engrossed in our own needy necessities, to grow greedy, to lose this perspective of gratitude that allows us to release all things to God rather than grab for more and more. Still we are called by this story to release rather than to grab.
And the story digs more deeply. For the vineyard in the story may be the vineyard of our own heart. And the story may speak to the violent occupations deep within us that may cause us to harm others even when we wish not to and which keep us from hearing the call of God to lead better lives. What are those violent occupiers of the space in our hearts that strangle the call for the gracious good? We are called in all dimensions of life to lives of gratitude by this story, revised as it may be.
Now let’s go back to Matthew’s revisionary memory. In closing, let’s think about that again for just a moment. The story may have been reshaped and drained of its revolutionary call. But it is still anti-establishment. Somehow that element remains even in this account. For the tenants have become the ones with the power, especially the power to reject, to deny, to control, and to harm. The tenants represent the powerful forces of the religious establishment. It is a story told against the religious establishment for rejecting the teachings of Jesus.
The story is no longer revolutionary. Nevertheless, the religious establishment is called to task for rejecting the new thing, the new faith, the new idea offered by the early urban Christian communities. For in the first century Christianity is a new idea of religion emerging, breaking forth:  based not on sacrifice, but on right living; based not on community or empire patriotism, but on individual conviction; based not on old classical Greek and Roman deities, but on One God beyond all who could not be fully known except by the example of someone like Jesus. And this new idea threatened the old systems of empire and synagogue. And even though Matthew would never call for an open revolt, he keeps the anti-establishment message of the Palestinian prophet named Jesus. For what is rejected becomes the corner. What is crucified lives on. And as we care for the vineyard, for what has been entrusted to us, and as we assume the powers that come with that office; we remember still to be grateful for the grace given to us, to be open to the weak, the poor, the outcast, the new, the different, the strange, and the rejected. In the vineyard, that is how we steward this common life we have been given.