Archive for September, 2011

Two Siblings and a Job

Sunday, September 25th, 2011

Matthew 21:23-32
September 25, 2011
Mary Hammond

There were two daughters. Their mother said to them, “Please call your grandmother. She is all alone in Iowa and not very healthy these days. A phone call would mean so much to her.”

The first daughter complained, “Oh, mom, you are always badgering me!” She ignored the request, while continuing to text her friends as they figured out a game plan for that evening. Meanwhile, the second daughter said, “Sure, mom, I can do that!”

Before supper, the first daughter was cold. She wrapped up in her colorful quilt and remembered that her grandmother had made it for her. Recalling her grandma’s devotion, she realized what a small request her mother had made. So, she dropped everything and made that phone call. Boy, was she glad she did! Her grandma was thrilled to hear from her, and the girl could tell that it made her grandma’s day!

The second daughter, on the other hand, got distracted by many things. “I’ll do it later,” she promised herself. A friend stopped by, and off she went to have some fun. She forgot about her mother’s request.

One day, the grandma got sick and was in a coma before the girls knew it.

Now, which one of these daughters did what the mother asked?

Saying “no,” but relenting and eventually doing “yes. Saying “yes,” but ultimately doing “no.” We all know what that looks like.

Jesus engages this universal human tendency in today’s parable from Matthew’s Gospel. The context of the scripture is significant. At the beginning of Chapter 21, Jesus enters Jerusalem on a donkey like a commoner rather than a stallion like a king. He is welcomed by crowds of struggling people, yearning for deliverance in many ways. The religious authorities in Jerusalem feel increasingly threatened by Jesus’ popularity. For a long time, they have been trying–unsuccessfully, I might add–to trap Jesus in his own words.

Once Jesus arrives in Jerusalem, his first stop is the Temple, the center of religious authority and practice. Instead of giving deference to those in power and quietly worshiping Yahweh, Jesus startles everyone by launching a protest against the abuses of religion that he witnesses there. He creates quite a ruckus, overturning the tables of the moneychangers, scattering the stalls of birds!

If Jesus wasn’t in trouble with the authorities before (which he was), he has now sealed his fate. They are bent on destroying him. In the first passage we read today, the Pharisees, elders, and chief priests interrogate Jesus about his authority. “By whose authority do you act?” they demand to know. Jesus recognizes their hidden agenda. So, in typical Jesus’ style, he answers their question with another question.

“About the baptism of John–who authorized it: heaven or humans?” Jesus asks. The religious leaders are cornered. To answer “humans” is to inflame the crowds; to answer “heaven” is to contradict their own views. They refuse to answer, and Jesus has bested them–for the time being.

Then Jesus tells them a simple story about a father, two sons, and a job in the family vineyard. In biblical times, the vineyard serves as standard imagery for the nation of Israel. The father’s request to go “work in the vineyard” has an underlying meaning. It reflects God’s yearning for the religious leaders to truly labor in God’s name among the people of God with the heart of God. No sweat. The religious leaders have that down–or so they think!

Both sons are asked to work in the vineyard. One refuses, later relenting and complying. The second agrees to labor in the vineyard, but never fulfills his word. ‘Which does the father’s bidding?’ Jesus inquires.

The answer is clear to the religious leaders. “The first,” they respond. Jesus agrees. Good enough! This conversation isn’t going too badly!

But, then comes the zinger. Jesus goes on, “Crooks and whores are going to precede you into God’s kingdom. John came showing you the right road. You turned up your noses at him, but the crooks and whores believed him. Even when you saw their changed lives, you didn’t care enough to change and believe him” (Matthew 21:31-32).

Matthew’s Gospel rejects claims of authority based purely on status or succession. A maverick leader like John is followed by a maverick leader named Jesus. Maverick followers like crooks, whores, and tax collectors prove themselves more open to God’s Realm than the religious elite.

The father invites both siblings to tend the vineyard. God calls the one who follows the rules and goes by the book and seems, at first glance, to do all the right things. God also calls the one who breaks the rules and throws out the rule book and seems, at first glance, to do all the wrong things.

Neither sibling has clean hands. In ancient culture, one is expected to obey the request of one’s father, the family patriarch. To do otherwise is a profound act of disrespect. Initially, it is the second son who honors his father. But in the long run, the tables are reversed. The second son ultimately dishonors his father by his lack of compliance, while his disobedient sibling changes course.

This is no gambler’s call to procrastination and ultimate compliance. This parable is a serious call to turn around, to recognize the work of God where we might not be looking for it, and get on board.

We began the service with a video from the Youth Sunday School Program, focusing on the theme of creation. As we approach the years ahead, voices around the globe are pleading with us as a nation to use, conserve, and consume energy in radically different ways and amounts. Meanwhile, big oil has its partners, even in religious communities.

“Come, work with–not against–my earth,” the Holy One pleads. One sibling says, “Sure, I’ll do that” but never does. The second one protests, but then starts listening to the groans of creation and begins experiencing a change of heart. A little movement here, a little there…pretty soon, that person, that town, that nation is toiling away in this 2011 vineyard that is a Planet in peril.

I have been thinking this week about Jesus’ command in Matthew 28:19-20 to “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all I have commanded you.” Progressives like to quote the beatitudes a lot and often bristle at this command in Matthew 28, rightly recalling the marriage of colonialism and evangelistic fervor, the terror of the crusades, and even the pushy Christian with the tract witnessing to them who won’t believe that they could already be a Christian. Yet conservatives like to quote Matthew 28 and often bristle at the beatitudes. We all need to start seeing these two teachings of Jesus as wedded to one another.

In his State of the Region address at the Annual ABC/RGR Meeting yesterday, Executive Minister Alan Newton asked the participants how many of them recommended movies to friends. Raise your hands if you do this. How many recommend favorite books? Favorite places to visit?

Alan then asked the gathered assembly, “How many recommend Jesus Christ to your friends? Do you recommend your favorite movies and your hairdresser to others more than you recommend Jesus Christ to them?”

We heard about the impact of the recession on the Region’s churches as well as trends away from Christian faith in Wales and in the United States. Alan told us that a recent study completed in Wales showed that 90% of self-identified Christians do not attend church. “We are one generation away from that phenomenon here,” he said. “The future of the church is not about more people on the pews or more money in the offering plate,” he continued, “The future of the church is about making more disciples of Jesus Christ.”

Alan went on, “These are challenging and exciting times, full of many threats and amazing possibilities. We need to remember, though, that the future never lies in the past. The past informs us, helping us venture forth into the unpredictable future. This requires faith, going out, and depending the Holy Spirit.”

Saying “yes” and doing “no.” Saying “no” and doing “yes.” Where are we today? Amen.

It’s not how we die but how we live.

Wednesday, September 14th, 2011

Philippians 1
September 18, 2011

Have you ever wondered if you could die for your faith? We read today about the Apostle Paul staring down death in his prison cell, and you do have to wonder. Could I do that?

I read what the Apostle Paul wrote, though, and it seems to me, he doesn’t really care what we would do if we were sitting in prison, with the execution grounds nearby. Not that such a thing would probably happen to any of us anyway. I’m thinking that the Apostle Paul is much more concerned about how we live as Christians than how we die. Because that’s what this letter is about.

When Mary and I were in Rome a couple of years back, one of the more memorable sites we visited was the prison that is claimed to be the one the Apostle Paul was held in before he was martyred. It’s right at the top of the Forum which contains the ruins that are so often featured on Rome travel posters.

As far as these things go, this claim seems to have some merit to it, though it could never be proven. It was a long time ago, after all, and there is no smoking gun, so to speak. But scholars are pretty much in agreement that Paul was, indeed, executed in Rome, and this letter to the Philippians was the last one he wrote.

Eugene Petersen calls Philippians Paul’s happiest letter. That seems kind of odd since things were pretty grim for Paul. But even though Rome put him in that prison, Paul had the empire right where he wanted it. He didn’t believe that Rome could last against the non-violent assault of the Gospel. That was far more important for Paul than issues of mortality and the the afterlife, or whether he went to be with the Lord or hung around for awhile. He was in chains, but as free as any person could ever be.

And one of the unintended consequences of his imprisonment, it turns out, was that instead of the message of Christ being silenced with Paul’s arrest, the message was getting out all the more. And instead of intimidating other followers of Jesus in Rome and Philippi and elsewhere, it only emboldened them.

For Paul, that was worth the price of his imprisonment and even death. Even the guards at the prison were listening because they realized that the only reason he was put in jail was because of his faith.

So that was one of the reasons this was such a happy letter, in spite of the circumstances. Another was that he wasn’t in this all alone. His friends in Philippi were living their faith well. Jesus was being made know because of them.

Eugene Petersen also says this about why this was such a happy letter for Paul. For Paul “circumstances are incidental compared to the life of Jesus, the Messiah, that Paul experiences from the inside. For it is a life that not only happened at a certain point in history, but continues to happen, spilling out into the lives of those who receive him, and then continues to spill out all over the place. Christ is, among much else, the revelation of God that cannot be contained or hoarded. It is this spilling out quality of Christ’s life that accounts for the happiness of Christians, for joy is life in excess…”

The more important issue for us then is not how we would handle some hypothetical situation where we might die for our faith, but how we will handle those very real situations that call us to live for our faith. What if the real joy of our lives was Jesus Christ being made known? I mean really known, coming alive in us? That was happening with the church in Philippi even though they were having a rough time of it themselves. And so Paul could rejoice even from a prison cell.

And like Paul, the followers of Jesus in Philippi were a work in progress. They were all learning along the way what it meant to follow Jesus, sometimes getting it right, sometimes getting it wrong. But they were becoming the Body of Christ that Paul wrote about in other places; the eyes, the ears, the hands, the feet, the brain, the heart of Christ. And Paul knew that would continue to happen even if he did not survive this prison stay. And that made him happy.

Even though Paul could go on and on about some hard to understand theological issues about Jesus, at it’s essence he wanted us to “live deeply in Christ…and let the glistening purity of Jesus’s life be our model,” as the author of 1 John puts it. To me, that’s the courage we need these days, to live deeply in Christ, let him be our model, and leave the dying and all the rest to him.

We can’t let the current of any other empire intimidate or seduce us into silence. The empire knows much more than we do the danger that the gospel represents to the goals and purposes of empire. Dying well, dying as Christians is not much of a threat to the empire, but living as Christians sure is. Loving enemies, tearing down the walls that divide us from each other, trusting in the power of God rather than the power of the military, giving our allegiance to God rather than the nation; the empire does not want to encourage any of that. The more deeply we live in Christ, the more he becomes our model, the more the empire’s hold on us is broken. They can kill us, but they can’t stop us from living.

It takes a lot of courage to live deeply in Christ, to let him be our model. It may not get us thrown in prison, but there are other kinds of chains that can be wrapped around us. Some of them, pretty tightly. But when we are alive in Jesus and he is alive in us, the message goes forth. There’s nothing the chains can do about that.

Paul was ready to die for his faith, but evidently he thought that prison, whether it was the one Mary and I stood in or not, wasn’t going to be his last one. But it may well have been. The message, though, is still alive. We are alive in Christ no matter how many martyrs along the way. The goal, though, is not to be martyrs, but those who come alive in Christ, whose lives make him known, people who in living deeply in Christ bring down empires.

We may never inhabit the martyr’s cell. So who knows how we would respond? But every day we will have the chance to come alive, to live deeply in Christ. And, as we read in 1 John, we will become like him. And it couldn’t make the Apostle Paul any happier.

Remembering a Decade…

Sunday, September 11th, 2011

September 11, 2011
Romans 14:1-12
Mary Hammond

I really appreciate the two signature statements of the United Church of Christ, which are quoted regularly by First Church pastor, David Hill. The first is this: “God is still speaking.” The second follows with the admonition, “Never put a period where God is placing a comma.” Both statements remind us that divine revelation is not static, but open to the realities of place and time, moving us forward into ever greater experience of God’s realm.

As we consider the Apostle Paul’s words to the Church in Rome today, I’m struck by how the themes may change, but the struggles the Church faces to embrace diversity remain. What people ate and didn’t eat, how they celebrated holy days or didn’t…these were “hot button” issues in Paul’s ministry context. ‘If it is God’s Table we are all sitting at, not our own,’ Paul argues, ‘who are we to judge one another? Isn’t that God’s job, not ours?’

Ever yearning for the unity of the Church, Paul seeks to refocus the believers on what really matters, and remind them to “single-mindedly serve Christ” (Romans 14:18). The first century church had to work hard to build bridges among people from diverse cultures, races, backgrounds, and social classes. So do we.

If Paul was addressing the American Church in 2011, what might he say to us about the Table of Christ? Who might we be sitting with, that God has invited, and we have not? What issues does the Church debate that become a smokescreen, obscuring the most urgent concerns of our faith?

9/11/01 laid bare realities that had been with humanity for a long time, but struck American vulnerabilities in a new way. There have been countless mass tragedies in the world: wars, famines, genocides, and natural disasters. Before 9/11/01, 9/11 was an infamous day in Latin America. September 11, 1973 marked a coup by the Chilean military, endorsed by the Nixon Administration in the United States. The government of democratically elected President Salvador Allende was overthrown. Military General, Augusto Pinochet, was installed. To this day, Pinochet is remembered for his brutal 16-year dictatorship and the endless heartbreak of the families of the disappeared.

9/11/01 brought home to us in the United States what so many others around the world have faced and continue to face. The utter tragedy of 9/11/01 is uncontested. The loss of innocent life is uncontested. Yet, the uniqueness of our loss in the context of the global story betrays the insularity of our national understanding.

The main point of Steve’s 9/11/01 sermon was simple and easy to remember, even after 10 years: How we respond to the events of 9/11 will show us who we are.

As much as we would wish it was otherwise, there is no way to sanitize the amount and levels of violence our nation has unleashed the past 10 years in the name of 9/11. It is staggering, and I don’t even think it is quantifiable by human means. In addition to the loss and injury of human life, the damage depleted uranium causes to human DNA and the environment will be present for generation upon generation to come. We have to live with the reality of this story, along with the tragedies of families who lost loved ones here in 9/11 and its aftermath.

I often think about the issues college students and their peers face, coming of age in a post-9/11 world. With the capacity for instant mass communication, we can’t keep our light under a bushel, but neither can we hide the underbelly of religious extremism. Violence perpetrated “in the name of God”, regardless of how that God is named, is pervasive around the globe. How would I view the meaning of faith if I grew up witnessing the devastating effects of violence “in the name of God” on the peoples of the world? This is a serious question the Church has to face now and in the years to come.

Yet, thankfully, there is a counter-witness to all this violence. Many Christian churches and individuals have used this decade to take the Apostle Paul seriously about crossing the many divides that we put up between others and ourselves. PCC youth collected over $500 for the Pennies for Peace Project, to help build schools for girls in rural Afghanistan. Folks in this congregation helped launch Oberlin College’s Peace & Conflict Studies Concentration.

New interest has arisen in the United States to understand more about Islam and our Muslim neighbors around the globe. Eboo Patel of the Interfaith Youth Core has helped a whole generation of young people learn from both each another’s similarities and differences. Peaceful Tomorrows has developed linkages between victims’ families of 9/11 and victims’ families of the War in Afghanistan. Blessed voices of shalom throughout the world are swimming against the vast tide of returning violence for violence.

Amid the tragedies we have witnessed the past ten years, the beauty and miracle of the story being written in our day and time is this: God is still speaking. God is still calling the Church to be the Church. Let’s shine some light into the darkness. Let’s make some peace amid the poisonous discourse that infects our body politic. Let’s bring some gentleness where compassion is absent. Let’s build relationships where the human fabric is torn asunder. Let’s tread gently on this earth we call home. Let’s open our hands and hearts to those Jesus welcomed.

God is still speaking…may we listen slowly and deeply, not to the facile chatter of superficial conversation, but to the cries and groans of a planet in peril, a people vulnerable and unsure, longing to know that there truly is Life, there truly is Good News, there truly is that which we in the Church understand as Redemption and Reconciliation to be found in Jesus Christ. Amen.