Archive for September, 2008

The Authority of Hookers and ums.

Sunday, September 28th, 2008

“So, Nazarene, where do you get your authority to preach in our Temple? All this wandering around Israel, making people think you’ve got something from God to say, when everybody knows we are the ones who God has made the guardians of the faith. We’re the ones with the credentials. What have you got?”

“I don’t even know if I want to go into it with you. All I will tell you is this. It’s not from the likes of you, for sure. No. Wait. Maybe I will tell you, but first you’ve got to answer this question. What about John the Baptist? Where did his authority come from?”

Jesus had them right then, and they knew it. If they answered it came from God, then everybody would want to know why they dismissed him as a lunatic running around in the wilderness. It they said it was all made up, not from God but from people, then the crowd, who took the Baptizer very seriously, would turn against them.

Did you ever watch those Apple Dumpling Gang movies? It’s Disney fare about a gang of outlaws who weren’t very good at it. We used to watch those movies with the kids. Sometimes I think the religious leaders of Jesus’ day are like the Apple Dumpling Gang. As much as they try to trap Jesus, they are always the ones getting caught.

There are a couple of important differences between the Apple Dumpling Gang and this gang, though. They weren’t nearly as sweet and lovable as Don Knotts and Tim Conway. And they did manage to get Jesus killed. But even that didn’t quite work out the way they thought it would.

Jesus was always having to deal with these people. They not only saw themselves as the guardians of the faith, but they kept it locked up and shackled so it was no good to anybody, including themselves.

It was like that story Jesus told them. They were that son who promised to go out into the field, but never got around to it. They sure liked talking about how God asked them to take care of things and what a great job they were doing, even though they spent all their time inside. In the meantime, those who the religious establishment never imagined would find their way into God’s vineyard were the ones out there taking care of it and bringing in the harvest of God.

And it was from the ones out there in the fields that Jesus got his authority, the hookers and bums, the socially and politically and spiritually marginalized. They were the ones changing, the ones who were paying attention to Jesus and finding God and God’s Kingdom. They were the ones who told Jesus to go for it, while the religious establishment did everything they could to stand in his way.

Jesus’ authority came from whores and crooks, from a thief on the cross next door. Do you remember what all those poor and struggling folk, the ones on the outside, said at the end of the Sermon on the Mount. “He taught with authority.” They heard something from Jesus they had never heard before, and the recognized it as the Word of God. It was nothing like the dribble from the Scribes and Pharisees, the ones claiming how important their work was in the field, but never quite getting out there and doing it.

Jesus wasn’t looking for approval from the establishment. All he wanted was to proclaim the love of God and see how it changes lives and the way people live in this world. His authority would come from people who were giving themselves over to God.

The religious establishment could not understand that for Jesus it was never about being in power, not that kind of authority. He rejected the idea of being a king, though, a couple of centuries after the idea of monarchy has lost all credence, we still keep trying to make him one. Rather it was about people opening themselves up to God’s Realm and empowering each other, giving authority to each other to build a new world.

Mary and I and Glenn and Kathie were in Rochester last weekend for the ABCRGR Annual Meeting where we were celebrating the history of Women in Ministry in our Region. Helen Barrett Montgomery was licensed to preach 110 years ago. Where do you think she got her authority to not only preach but eventually become President of our denomination in 1922? It wasn’t from the religious establishment for sure, who were doing everything they could to keep women out then, and many of whom are still trying to do to this very day.

But the people of Lake Avenue Baptist Church in Rochester back in 1898 knew what was in Helen Barrett Montgomery. She got her authority from them.

And one of the current women in ministry in our Region, Carolyn Piper, pointed out that all of us, men and women, lay and clergy get our authority to be about our ministry, our witness to Jesus Christ, from the same place, each other.

That is what, to me, is so marvelous about today’s story from Matthew’s gospel. It’s not just about the authority of Jesus, but the authority we all have, and we all offer each other.

By whose authority did we say Mary Hammond was going to pastor this church? By whose authority did we say that gay and lesbian people were going to be welcomed fully into this church? By whose authority did we say we are going to minister to students, faculty, and staff at Oberlin College? By whose authority did we say we are going to stand clearly for peace and non violence because that is the way of Jesus? By our authority, by the authority we have given each other.

By the authority we give each other we preach the good news of Jesus Christ and call people to follow him. By the authority we give each other, we take care of each other, and tend to each other’s needs. By the authority we give each other we are building a church and staking our claim in God’s Kingdom.

What underlies that authority? What’s it built on? It’s built of the work of God in our lives. Jesus Christ is the cornerstone on which our authority to be the church with each other is anchored. It is the authority of grace, the authority of lives made new by Jesus Christ.

Nobody has to validate our ministries, what we all do to be the people of Jesus Christ. The validation comes from the Spirit of God, who simply calls us to walk this way with Jesus. And with eyes to see, we see the Spirit at work in each other. With ears to hear we are learning from each other how to follow Jesus. That’s all the authority we need. We don’t challenge each other’s authority to bear witness to Jesus, we recognize it and rejoice in it and grow, together, in the ways of God.

So the issue isn’t defending our authority to be witnesses of Jesus Christ, to be seekers of God’s kingdom. We don’t have to defend ourselves any more than Jesus did. We don’t have to prove anything to anybody. The more important question is claiming our authority. God’s Word rests in us. The Spirit is calling us forth. As the Apostle Paul says it in Romans 8, all of creation is waiting for us to claim our place, to take on the authority as followers of Jesus and remaking this world.

Jesus showed us that authority isn’t about who has the power, but who is willing to give themselves over to God and to others. That’s what that passage in Phillipians is about. Of all the possibilities Jesus had for himself, he chose to become like us. That’s where his real power and authority came from, not from what he claimed as his superior status, but what he was willing to become, trust God would make of him, as he became like us. 

All summer long we have been talking about how the same Spirit that was in Jesus in us. The God Jesus believed in is the same God we believe in. That’s why Jesus has so much confidence in us and what we can become.

We use the word of authority is a couple of senses. One of course, is the authority that means being in power. If you mess with the authorities, you could end up in jail. That is authority as power.

There is also the authority that we talk about when so and so is the leading authority on ancient Greek manuscripts, or power back up systems. That is the authority of knowledge.

Did you know that each of us not only has the authority to follow Jesus Christ, but we are the authorities? Our credentials are probably as good as those hookers and crooks who validated the ministry of Jesus. The same grace that saved them, saves us.

They weren’t authorities because they had this whole thing of what it means to be a Christian figured out. It was because in Jesus they saw the possibility of something new for their own lives and this world and they were going to follow him and find out what it was. That’s what made them authorities, the experts, and it’s the same for us. It’s the authority that grace brings into our lives.

“So Jesus, is your authority from God or people?”


Is The Kingdom of God Under A Labor Contract?

Sunday, September 21st, 2008

One of my favorite retired Union members (whose name I will not mention, yet who hardly remains anonymous among us) heard Steve preach on this passage about the workers in the vineyard several years ago. His assessment of the parable was blunt: “This was obviously a labor violation.”

What’s with this parable? No matter how long they work, all the laborers receive the same pay. Those who toil the longest and hardest are rightfully stunned. What was once a loose collections of day laborers quickly has the makings of a worker’s union. The full-day workers grumble among themselves and then decide to organize. They select a spokesman and bring their complaint to the management. It looks to them like a clear-cut, legitimate grievance.

What are your thoughts about this story? How does its plot strike you? [Congregational sharing]

Let’s look for a moment at the broader context of this story. In the previous chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, Peter places his own blunt comment and question before the Lord. ‘Look, Jesus, we’ve left everything and followed you. So, what do we get out of it?’ (Matthew 19:27). The disciples had just witnessed an encounter between Jesus and a rich man with a great interest in following God’s commandments as he understood them. Yet, when Jesus asked him to part with his great wealth, he walked away crestfallen.

‘What about us, Jesus?’ Peter asks. ‘What reward are we going to get for leaving our fishing nets, our families, our communities, and following you? Surely the harder we work, the more we give up, the greater our reward, right?’

I remember taking a short-term intensive seminary class at Steve’s alma mater when I was in my early 30’s. A man sat next to me who was in his 50’s. “I felt the call to ministry when I was young, but I just kept putting it off,” he shared. “I knew it would be tough to raise a family on a minister’s salary, so I went into business, raised my children, got them through college, and I am now finally heeding my call…”

“What about me, Lord?” was the quiet little voice in my head, as I was thinking about my three girls at home and our little church in Oberlin. “We’ve followed your call since we were in our late teens… And what about this guy, anyway? Go for the creature comforts, then the call…hm…” None of us are immune from this sort of thinking.

The Message Bible does not clarify the context of our first century parable by translating denarii into “dollar.” Obviously, we don’t do business in denariis. But the denarii was considered a fair day’s wage in Jesus’ day, while the dollar is way below minimum wage in our nation today. Thus, it is important to understand that the estate manager in the parable is promising the day laborers a fair wage.

The manager goes out looking for workers wherever they usually gather. They seem to be plentiful, as he finds increasing numbers available throughout the day. Their work is both extensive and demanding. The more laborers, the more efficiently it can be completed.

Businesses today often employ day laborers, especially in the big cities and on the farms. Who are they? They are Mexicans, Hondurans, Salvadorans, and other Latin Americans. They are people who have risked their lives to come to this country so that they can send money back home to feed their families. Who are they? They are out-of-work U.S. citizens, down on their luck, needing a job. Sometimes they work 12 hours a day 6 days a week for whatever they are promised.

The day laborers are at the mercy of their employers. The possibility of exploitation is wide and deep. Sometimes the workers are paid; sometimes they are not. There is money for the bare necessities of life or there is hunger. What do they risk, if they complain?

At the end of the day, it’s time for the day laborers to get paid. Will the latecomers get shafted? Will the full-day workers get what has been promised? Who can guess? The most unexpected thing happens. The latecomers get unemployment compensation for the time they didn’t work! They are paid the same amount as the full-day workers! Everyone–yes, everyone–receives a denarii, a fair wage. The full-day worker receives what is promised, but does not receive more than he needs for the day. The part-day worker also receives enough to meet his needs.

This reminds me of God’s response to the children of Israel, navigating the wilderness, crying out for food to Yahweh (Exodus, Chapter 16), complaining much like the workers in our parable. God responds by sending quail to eat in the evening and manna for the morning. The Israelites are commanded to gather enough food for the day, but no more, except in preparation for the sabbath, when they are commanded to gather twice as much. Can the Israelites live such a life of trust? Can they resist the temptation to hoard?

The world works with a reward system, based on hard work, achievement, sacrifice, and all the other things Peter considers paramount when he asks Jesus, “So, what about us?”

The Realm of God works with a grace system, based on God’s radical generosity and unbounded love. It’s a topsy-turvy system full of surprises, where the first in the world become last in the Kingdom, and the last in the world become first in the Kingdom. It’s a place where a repentant thief on a cross receives the same grace as the disciple who has given up everything to follow Jesus. It’s a place where a Gentile with no former connection to the historic faith of the Jews is offered the same invitation as the Jew who is rich both in ancestry and heritage. It’s a place where the rich don’t have too much and the poor don’t have too little. It’s a place where hoarding gets one nowhere and generosity becomes a key to the Kingdom.

In our contemporary context, this ancient parable retains its rich texture. It is about fairness of a far greater kind than mere labor rights. In a culture filled with gaping inequality such as our own, this parable promotes both the bold generosity of God and the radical equality of humanity as discovered through grace.

“Give us this day our daily bread,” is a part of the Lord’s Prayer that we recite every Communion Sunday. The richness of these words interface the parable of the day laborers and stand in bold opposition to the excesses of western culture which surround us.

Give us today what we need, God, not what we want. Give us enough for this day, God, not more than enough. Give us this day our portion, God, and make sure that our neighbors to the south, east, north, and west get their portion, too. Don’t let us drink today, God, of the excesses of our culture. They tempt us everywhere we turn. So many of our neighbors won’t eat today. God, help us remember them. So, Lord, just give us today our daily bread…the manna in the wilderness that we need, just for today.

Paradoxically, God’s generosity calls us to humility and simplicity. Why were the first workers in the parable not paid first? Had they been, all this squabbling about who gets what would have been avoided. They would have taken off with their day’s wage, gone to purchase what they needed, and that would have been that. Instead, those who worked the hardest were forced to wait and watch what the employer did for the latecomers. They were thus confronted with their own inner conflicts about the fairness of the manager and their own inner dialogue with the radical freedom of grace.

Even the hardest workers can become stingy with grace. Sometimes it is because we are the hardest workers. A pastor tells the story of a parishioner who complains because a teenager has taken Communion before completing Confirmation class. “That youth doesn’t deserve to take Communion yet! I had to wait!,” says the elderly parishioner. The pastor replies, “I don’t think the disciples passed through Confirmation class before celebrating their last supper with Jesus.” The parishioner blusters in response.

How do we live into the radical equality and unbounded generosity which characterize the Kingdom, or Realm, of God? How do we confront our own smallness when it rears its ugly head? Where does this parable speak to you?

Seen any trees lately?

Sunday, September 14th, 2008

“How many times do I have to forgive my brother or sister who hurts me, Jesus?” Don’t forget that question from Peter came very shortly after that argument broke out amongst the disciples about who would be the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.

Remember, that’s when Jesus picked up a child and put her in front of them all and said, “if you want to be great in God’s kingdom, then be like her.”

This issue about who was the greatest may have come up on several occasions. And Peter might have even been allowing that given what things were with all the pressure that was on Jesus and all of them, the authorities who wanted to kill them, the people who ridiculed them, the precipitous drop in income they had experienced since leaving their nets behind and going with Jesus, that things between them could get a little testy. So forgiveness might be in order, but how much order?

Peter was looking for the reasonable limits. “How about seven times, Jesus, isn’t that more than enough forgiveness?” “How about 490 times, Peter?”

There he was at it again. Jesus was suggesting ways of living that no regular human being could ever live up to. Peter was probably struggling to get even to that seven times mark, but this was way overboard.

But Jesus talked about forgiveness a lot. It’s right there in the Sermon on the Mount–his greatest hits–in what we call the Lord’s prayer. Jesus says we ought to pray that God would forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors. And he follows it up by saying, “you can’t get forgiveness from God, without giving forgiveness to others.”

Like he did most of the time, Jesus was going at it backwards. He was turning everything upside down. We think that forgiveness follows repentance and restitution. If you say you are sorry and promise not to do it again, and make anything right that needs to be right or, at least, do the best you can, then I will gladly, or maybe not so gladly, forgive you. But I will forgive you if you do your part first.

But God does it differently, backwards. God forgives and then come repentance and restitution from us. Forgiveness isn’t the last step in getting ourselves right with God. It’s the first. And it all starts with God.

That’s what this business we call grace is all about. God’s grace, God’s willingness to forgive the mess we make of things including ourselves, the sin we contribute to our world, is meant to make us graceful, or people full of grace, who take God’s forgiveness and make it real in our interactions with each other. It doesn’t only make us more forgiving, it opens us up to all kinds of ways of new living. You’ve heard of gateway drug like marijuana that leads to harder and more dangerous drugs.

Well maybe forgiveness is a gateway characteristic of the Christian life. If you are forgiving others, maybe before too long that’s not enough, and you start being more compassionate. Then the next thing you know you are experimenting with gentleness, and before too long you are hopelessly addicted to caring for the oppressed and making peace. You never know what just might happen when you start with forgiveness, the dangerous places it might lead us. We might end up being the Body of Christ.

Now we have to realize that like Peter, we are always looking for loopholes. And even in this amazing grace Jesus is talking about, we find ways to abuse it. A popular way is that we use the idea of forgiveness to let ourselves off the hook. I can do all manner of evil against you, I can sin in grievous ways against you and then put the ball in your court by saying, “Well, you know, Jesus said forgive 490 times. So it doesn’t matter what I’ve done. The real issue now is forgiveness. It’s on you, the sinned against, not me, the sinner. I may have hurt you, but that’s past, now the important thing if we are going to move ahead is that you forgive me.”

That’s not what forgiveness is about, an escape clause in all of my negative interactions with you, God, or the planet. Grace is about God helping us to own our sin, instead of it owning us. Grace is an avenue to a new destination where we can live in better ways with God and each other.

Peter had a problem, though. He knew himself. As much as he would like to be like the king in the first part of today’s story who forgave the servant who owed him so much money, like most of us Peter was more like the servant who couldn’t figure out how to let grace take him to a new level. He couldn’t get the new paradigm, the new way of living, that Jesus was talking about where forgiveness and grace trump our need to hold grudges, seek revenge, and hit back harder than they hit you.

It was a failure of Peter’s imagination. He couldn’t see the new thing Jesus was talking about. He couldn’t catch sight of the new possibilities for his life if he could let forgiveness sink deep within, let God’s forgiveness propel him to something else.

See this acorn? Do you know what’s inside of it? A tree. And a big one. Peter thinks this whole idea of forgiveness, or at least the way Jesus is talking about it, is beyond what anybody but Jesus is capable of. But for Jesus it is no more improbable that Peter or any of us can live grace filled lives than it is this acorn becoming a huge oak tree. It happens all the time. And with God, what is exactly impossible?

We need new eyes to see and new ears to hear about the possibilities that come when we lay down our nets and hit the road with Jesus. Jesus shows us how to start looking for the seeds that contain trees just waiting to grow. Those trees are us. That’s what Jesus keeps telling us. It’s possible that we can follow him, and become what he sees we can become. The trees are there, right inside the seeds, right inside of us.

Mary and I couldn’t help but chuckle a bit after she came back from the Fair Trade Summit that took place in town last week. More than 20 years ago this congregation was involved in a project called Jubilee Crafts. We volunteered our time to sell crafts and other items made by workers in cooperatives in Third World countries. We also did presentations about the conditions in the countries, the challenges the workers faced, and the needs they had. We were able to return to the workers many more times the money they would have received if they had marketed their products in ways we are most used to. We returned many thousands of dollars to those workers.

We thought we had this seed called Jubilee Crafts. We were just trying to help out some folk who we were able to help out. It turns out, though, it was not a seed, but a tree. That tree is now a whole movement for Fair and Fairer trade. We were taking on the established system and subverting it. And look at that tree.

We just need better imaginations, rather than assuming things always have to be the way they have always been. We can get out of those traps. That story we read earlier about the Israeli and Palestinian families who decided that rather than let the murders of their loved ones fester, they were going to take steps toward forgiveness, proves Jesus point. We don’t have to live the way we always have. There are alternatives, God’s alternatives. We just have to keep looking for the trees inside those seeds Jesus planted.

And 9-11 is a test for all of us. Jesus surely didn’t mean for us to forgive something like that. Well, I think he did. As devastating as 9-11 was, it was nothing compared to what Jesus saw Rome doing every day. He was not naive about any of this. Remember that his family ended up as refugees because the baby boys in whole villages were slaughtered because they were looking for him. And everywhere he went, people were still trying to kill him. They finally did, but it wasn’t them who succeeded, it was Jesus. They were angry and frightened of the new world Jesus was offering. But Jesus loved them. And forgave them.

The point that Jesus was making to Peter is not that we can finally get to the limit of forgiveness, even if it is 490 times. The point is that forgiveness, starting with God’s forgiveness, changes our lives, and the old questions about how much do we have to forgive get replaced with questions about how do we be more like Jesus?

We are the trees that Jesus believed could take root in this world and provide shade and nourishment and stability and joy and wonder as folk make their way toward God.

And this thing we call the church is not just some seed scattered here and there. We are trees, spreading out and reaching up, seeking to follow Jesus and be his body, his presence on this earth.

It’s not impossible. We can bear witness to Jesus. We can live the way he lived. We can believe what he believed. And we can make a difference in this world as surely as huge trees grow from a little seed.

Keeping it Real, Keeping it Loving: The Nuts and Bolts of Christian Community

Sunday, September 7th, 2008

I grew up in a family where there was a good share of conflict, and yet there was also often a deep avoidance of conflict. In the last decade of my mother’s life, I tried to press her one time on the phone to not change the subject, to really deal with the differences of opinion that we were having. After she changed the subject the third time, I said, “Mom, please, don’t change the subject. Let’s talk this through.” There was a silence, and then she just said, “I can’t.” I pressed her again, she changed the subject for the last time, hastily said “Goodbye,” and hung up the phone.

Such realities are more common than we want to admit. Yet what is being asked of us in today’s reading from the Gospel of Matthew is precisely what often becomes the most difficult to do—deal with our conflicts directly, face to face. I can’t tell you the number of people I have known over the years who preferred to leave a congregation that they had grown to love rather than deal with an injury or conflict face to face. Our fears and vulnerabilities are deep and powerful.

The scriptures teach us that reconciliation is not cheap. In a face-to-face encounter with the one who has been offended, the offender is personally challenged to repent, turn around, and be transformed. The offended, on the other hand, is personally challenged to risk an opaqueness before the very one who has done the wounding.

While our human families may exhibit a host of dysfunctional dynamics in navigating conflict, the Church Family is daily called to make peace through taking specific steps toward reconciliation. The Church must work through disagreements and the wounds we inflict on one another without resorting to destructive methods of retaliation. What are some of those methods? We’ve all seen them. [Share] Back-biting, sarcasm, gossip, distancing, disappearing without dealing with the conflict.

A face-to face encounter opens up the potential for new understanding, reconciliation, and renewed relationship. Communication provides the possibility of healing the rupture that has occurred within the community. The witness of the body of Christ beyond itself is so important that peacemaking with one another is absolutely essential.

Tragically, there are times when the offender will not take responsibility for the offense. The person may minimize the pain of the offense or lie about it. The offender may try to blame everything on the offended person. Many scenarios can take place.

In such situations, the offended person must not give up on the offender. Instead, another person is brought in to the attempt at reconciliation, and the offender is confronted again. If this process does not yield the promise of reconciliation, the entire faith community becomes involved.

Finally, if none of this mends the relationship, the offender is to become “like the sinner or tax collector.” Sadly, throughout church history, this admonition has been used as a pretext for excommunication. However, if we peer more deeply into the practice of Jesus, we discover that he welcomed sinners and tax collectors. In fact, he was severely criticized for doing this by the religious leaders of his day.

Notice another part to the text, immediately following the admonition to treat the offender as a “sinner or tax collector.” The following verses are often lifted out of context and quoted alone, separated from the process of peacemaking through face-to-face communication. “Whenever two of you on earth agree about anything you pray for, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three come together in my name, I am there with them” (Matthew 18:1-20).

Placed back in context, we can see that the process of reconciliation involves prayer and community. If only two gather in Christ’s name, there he is among them in that powerful and difficult work of reconciliation. And if three gather—or more—there he is among them as well.

This work of reconciliation within the body of Christ, the Church, isn’t done in a vacuum. It is undergirded by the presence of the One who welcomed sinners and tax collectors, who spoke truth to power, who got in trouble with the religious authorities. While he forgave again and again, he called his disciples in no uncertain terms to a life of faithfulness, spiritual vitality, and compassion. He expects nothing less for both offender and offended.

When there is no reconciliation between people in Christ’s body, there is always prayer. Yet, in no way is prayer a last resort. In fact, it is a first resort, last resort, and middle resort. Prayer infuses the process of reconciliation with the presence of God and the person of Christ. Sometimes reconciliation can take awhile. During that while, our prayers become a means and method of peacemaking, as we attend to our own souls while also handing the offender over to the God.

This text is placed between two stories of welcome. The previous story is the Parable of the Lost Sheep. A shepherd goes in search of the one sheep that has wandered away, leaving the ninety-nine to graze on their own. It’s a bold move, risking the security of the 99 to pursue the one.

The following story is the Parable of the Unmerciful Servant. Here Jesus responds to Peter’s question about how many times he should forgive someone. The point of the parable is that Peter is called to offer unlimited forgiveness. Another risky move.

The hallmark of the community of Christ is agape love. “See how they love one another!” should be the witness that visitors take back with them to their dorms, workplaces, and retirement centers. As we tend to our own souls when we have been offended, after our own long work of internal reconciliation, we come to wish peace for the one who has offended us. As we face our offenses, we grow to accept responsibility for what we have done and we seek the peace and love of Christ in our own lives.

The first Sunday of each month, we come together before this Table to share Communion, a remembrance of Jesus’ celebration of his last supper with his disciples. Here, as we stand with one another, we are reminded of our joint desire for reconciliation. We come united with one another to this table where God welcomes us. Each of us knows sin; each of us knows grace. Here there are no distinctions between us.

Come, come as you are, come bearing all you want to be, come with your dreams, your hopes, your fears, your vulnerabilities.