The Greatest Commandment – Lectionary 10/25/2020

Matthew 22:34-39

When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’

Sermon Text

            Next week we celebrate All Saint’s Day, the day when we remember all those who have gone before us to glory. A day when, if not in actuality, then in our awareness, we can see the glory of heaven just a little bit closer to us. It is a celebration of the promise of God to be with us throughout all eternity. All Saint’s Day waits for us, just a few scant days away, to give us hope in the resurrection and in the present bliss that is given to all Saints who have left us.

            The celebration of All Saint’s Day next week is a fixed point in our calendar, but equally fixed is what will transpire just two days later. “The Tuesday next after the first Monday in the month of November,” marks the day of our National Elections in the United States. This year, there seems to be an urgency in the air about an election. In a year of plague and disaster, unrest, and unrighteousness, in a year that will no doubt go down in history as the defining moment of a generation. The toll of the bells, the passing of each hour as we approach this day, ring out in silence and pulls at our hearts to give us all pause. There is an anxiety that is thoroughly thought of, and is sometimes voiced, something feels different this year.

            As this is our last Sunday before the election which is not already devoted to a specific celebration, I thought it apt for us to look to scripture and see what we wisdom it can give us about our present situation. I preface this meditation by saying that this journey into the scripture to find wisdom will not, and is not intended to be, and endorsement of anything but that same scripture, of the God who illumined its writing, and of the faithful people who depend upon it. God has wisdom for every moment of our life and the more that a situation brings us to an uncertain place, the more completely we must cling to the teachings of God that are offered to us. So, anxious people of God, let us come to the scripture, to the well of God’s grace, and pull life out of the deep waters, the waters that are deeper than creation itself.

            Our scripture tells us about one of several moments in which someone comes and asks a question of Jesus. The question is not asked in earnest in Matthew’s telling of this story but is meant as a trap to catch Jesus in a lie. It is the sort of thing we are accustomed to in our modern world, but we should not think that this is anything new. The “Gotcha,” question is as old as humanity itself, from the moment that Cain asked, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Jesus’ opposition asks a simple question, “Which commandment in the law is the greatest?”

            The scandal of such a question can sometimes be lost to us in our Christian circles, but we must look at what this question would mean to a Jew in Jesus’ context. There were two major parties in Judaism at the time – The Pharisees and the Sadducees. The Sadducees were Biblical purists, reading only the Torah – that is Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. The Pharisees were more expansive – they believed in the authority of the prophets, in the teachings of ministers and sages throughout history. The two parties were highly divided, one was in charge of the Temple – the unyielding Sadducees – and the other led the people and taught them God’s word – the searching Pharisees.

            The one thing that these two groups agreed on was the Torah, the bedrock of Judaism. In the Torah were all the good teachings of God. It not only numbered 613 strictures for the people to live their life by but told their story. The story of how God took a normal man in Babylon and made him the father of a nation. The story of how that nation came to live in Egypt, to become enslaved. How God lifted that nation out from under the hands of oppression and freed them to take hold of God’s promises. The Torah had all things needful within in, and to take hold of the Torah was to take hold of the sum of wisdom. The uniting principle of all Judaism was not a list of rules, it was God’s words breathed out and etched onto paper, the foundation of their faith that was their salvation.

            In asking Jesus which commandment, out of something like 613 of them, was most important, the trap was meant to show him as a something other than what he was. If he prioritized one command over another, it would be easy to accuse him of all manner of wickedness. Jesus could have been written off as an anti-government radical, as an antinomian relativist, as a dangerous visionary bent on revenge. The beauty of the trap which was set for Jesus is that most people would be unable to find anything like a right answer. We as human beings are too prone to extremes, to find our favorite feature of a thing and lift that up above all others.

            If any one of us were asked what the greatest commandments were, if we did not know the answer that Jesus gave, then we would no doubt find that we all have hundreds of different understandings of scripture. Some among us would emphasize purity laws and some economic ones. For some we would be caught up in esoterics of proper worship and others lost in the weeds of what constitutes someone worthy of God’s salvation. The commandments which we prioritize in our life are the ones that we not only keep, but the ones which we find ourselves searching out, making sure others are keeping to them, enforcing above all others.

            The question was not being asked to just anyone though. The scripture we read today shows an oblivious party coming to God and asking God what in God’s law is most significant. The one person who could not be tricked, the one person who could give the correct answer and who we have no reason to doubt. Jesus looks beyond the intent of the question to trap him. Jesus looks beyond the opportunity this moment would give him to humiliate his opponents or to cast dispersions on them, and instead gives them the truth. A hard truth, but one that no one could deny. It rested in their soul and took root. Whether or not that root would grow into a tree, would produce fruit, well that is never answered for us.

            The truth was, that if we were to truly understand God’s love and God’s instruction, then nothing would be more significant to us than Loving God and Loving our Neighbor. Nothing. It is a litmus test that is only difficult in extremity. Whenever we do anything in our life, we do so with these tests to determine whether or not we have acted properly. If I say something cruel that makes me feel good in a moment, have I honored God? Have I honored the person I spoke to? If I spent my money on the fifth or sixth frivolous expense I happened upon that month, have I loved God with that action? Have I spent my money wisely when my neighbor is living hand to mouth?

            Those are two obvious examples of this metric, things that we can grasp onto and see the binary of a yes or no answer. Excessive and wasteful spending and cruelty are obviously wrong, but the question gets complicated when we begin applying it to the larger things in life. Is it a just thing to support X law or Y candidate? Is it right to buy from this brand, when so much of what they do hurts so many people? If someone who I disagree with is actively hurting people as a result of the stance they hold, when does my politeness become complicity?

            The metric which Christ gives us is not meant to be glib, it is not meant to be the end of the conversation. It opens up a world of options for us to explore, a world of questions and answers that we could only imagine before. If the greatest commandments, if the sum of God’s law is that we love God and one another, then there is a great deal we have to change. As our confession before communion every month says, “We have not loved [God] with our whole heart. We have failed to be an obedient church. We have not done [God’s] will, we have broken [God’s] law, we have rebelled against [God’s] love, we have not loved our neighbors, and we have not heard the cry of the needy.

            The next few weeks are going to be difficult for a great many people. The reality that politics is not just a nebulous thing that exists, “Over there,” but something that impacts every aspect of our life has become more obvious in recent years. Many will be going to the ballots knowing that, depending on what laws pass and what people take office, their life may well be in danger – if not from one thing than another. The next few weeks will be highly charged, they will be vicious, and God help us they may even be violent.

            The Christian response in the midst of all this, in the middle of a world that does not know what to do, is not to shout from ivory towers about the importance of civility. It is not even to ask all people to take on a moderate attitude. That would be a dishonest assessment even of our own views on most anything. The world is as it always has been, desperately searching for an answer to the great questions of life. In a world clinging to find what is real, what is lasting, we can provide an answer, like Jesus did before us.

            We can look at those we meet in our daily life, whether they be friends or enemies, and we can tell them the truth. That above all in this life, we hold two banners – we love God, and we love others. We are never called to do one or the other, but in all things, we must embody both. John Wesley put it succinctly in defining the work of the Christian as, Doing no harm. Doing good. And attending to all the ordinances of the faith. If in doing good, we cause harm, we have failed. If in doing good we fail to attend to the work of God, we have failed.

            The path ahead, not only in the next few weeks, but for our entire futures, is not going to be an easy path. It never has been, and we should not pretend otherwise. However, we walk this path with the full knowledge that the one who has laid this challenge before us is the very same person who will see us through it. In the uncertainty of daily life let us learn to turn to Christ and hear his words. We will Love God and one Another we must have faith in that much. – Amen.

Beholding God – Lectionary 10/18/2020

Exodus 33: 12-33

Moses said to the Lord, “See, you have said to me, ‘Bring up this people’; but you have not let me know whom you will send with me. Yet you have said, ‘I know you by name, and you have also found favor in my sight.’ Now if I have found favor in your sight, show me your ways, so that I may know you and find favor in your sight. Consider too that this nation is your people.” He said, “My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.” And he said to him, “If your presence will not go, do not carry us up from here. For how shall it be known that I have found favor in your sight, I and your people, unless you go with us? In this way, we shall be distinct, I and your people, from every people on the face of the earth.”

The Lord said to Moses, “I will do the very thing that you have asked; for you have found favor in my sight, and I know you by name.” Moses said, “Show me your glory, I pray.” And he said, “I will make all my goodness pass before you, and will proclaim before you the name, ‘The Lord’; and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy. But,” he said, “you cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live.” And the Lord continued, “See, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock; and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by; then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen.”

Sermon Text

            Our life of faith, in all the different ways it manifests itself, is summed up with us becoming closer to God. We want to know God intimately, to see God face to face. We grow in our love for God and one another, we work toward perfection, and in all things align ourselves with God’s purposes for our lives. The call that we receive when we come into the faith is answered in a life lived toward God.

            Since our entire life is found in pursuing God, in beholding God wherever God appears in our life, we are seekers as often as we are recipients. We do not worship a God who remains in one place, but a God that is constantly ambulating across creation. If we stay in one place too long we risk losing our energy, our drive to chase after God and to seek closer and closer communion with the Divine love which originates us. We must be on the move as God is on the move, if not in a locative sense than in a spiritual and active one. We must seek our God wherever God can be found and acknowledge that that sometimes requires us to break out from the patterns and comforts that we are accustomed to.

            We have spoken several times about the way that God has moved us into new territory in the midst of this Pandemic, both in the literal sense that we spent a long time outside and online and the more figurative sense of so many of the dangers and troubles of our world being exposed with so little to distract us. As happens from time to time, we were pushed out of our comfort zones and found that – beyond the safe walls we have constructed for ourselves – the world remains a fallen and concerning place. Now we have moved into more familiar surroundings. I am back in a suit, our worship is back in the churches in an altered but still familiar format, and we now risk getting back into a situation where life is normal, where we can build up the barriers that keep us from seeing life as it is. We risk becoming stagnant in our pursuit of God.

            This is not a unique problem to us or to our time. Some theorists suggest that, every five hundred years or so in Christianity there is a shake-up. Something happens that changes the field on which we all sojourn. For the early Church the Edict of Toleration put out by Constantine and their subsequent rise to power changed everything about how they interacted with the world. Five hundred years later the oppressed church settled into power sufficiently to begin actively oppressing others, sparking not only the Crusades but centuries of violence over religious and civil disagreements. Then came Martin Luther, King Henry VIII, John Calvin, Ulrich Zwingli, and others who decentralized church power and splintered Christianity into one thousand denominational lines. Now we, five hundred years removed from that, encounter a world of instant communication, of the slow decline of institutions, of a post-modern reimaging of all that we once took for granted.[1]

            The five-hundred-year theory has its faults, and allows us to forget that every century, every decade, in fact every moment of every day is significant in shaping history. Yet, it does show that we can never just keep doing what we have always done. The world spins round, time passes and technology morphs, and attitudes toward all manner of things change. In the same way that the way we live would be unintelligible to a first century Greek, so too would their life be unintelligible to those who lived among Imperial Christianity or the Protestant Reformation. We who are so locked in our ways, we who resist the winds of change around us, we often find ourselves depending on systems and ways of being that have long since passed from usefulness, and because of this we miss out on the new things going on around us.

            Our scripture for today demonstrates an episode in which something is clearly not working for the people of God. Just before God and Moses speak about glory, beauty, and what it means to see someone face to face, the people of Israel made the decision to make a calf of gold and worship it rather than wait for Moses to return to them with tidings from God. The Israelites likely thought that their actions were positive, the cow to them represented the same God who was on the mountain, and wanting to see God face to face they created an idol that would become God for them. They did not think to wait, because they thought they could force God’s hand in the matter.

            God raged against the people, but did not abandon them. Moses began the work of reconciling the people to God and set up a tent of meeting for the people to consult God whenever they needed to through his mediation. Moses wanted to work alongside God to make sure that people did not have to lose hope or try toforce God into any situation. Moses created a space where God and humanity could intersect, a sacred space of mutual relationship.

            Where the Israelites had responded to God by trying to force God into the things they had known before, that is idols that constrained a God to one place, Moses had created a moveable tent that showed clearly that God was never bound. It was a space that God could come into and be with God’s people, but not a place that presumed it could hold onto God. It was a tabernacle meant for meetings, not a house or prison for the deity.

            Moses could have stopped here and would have been find to do so. God would come and be among God’s people, Moses would be the intermediary, and all would be well. Moses, like we today, could have been content to have God enter into the sanctuary as God felt called to and otherwise tolerate the absence of God in the in-between times. Why chase after something? Why seek what you are guaranteed? Why pursue what you know is already yours?

            However, as any of us who are married and many of us who have a sense of what it means to be in relationships generally, settling for “good enough,” in a relationship is never best practices. Even in the covenant of marriage, intended as it is to be a lifelong endeavor, the covenant can only thrive when both parties actively seek not only to love and honor, but daily pursue one another. This is not a vain romantic pining or grandiose display that can be easily Instagramable, but an earnest pursuit to know one another more completely, more fully, to love and be loved and to never stop in seeking new ways to express and inhabit that love.

            For Moses this meant hiking back up the Holy Mountain. It meant looking to God and asking directly, “Did you really mean you were going to lead us through the wilderness? Cause I don’t want an angel intermediary, I want you! Did you really mean you will dwell among us? Because I don’t want occasional visits, I want you to live among us! Did you really mean we can speak, face to face? Because I want to know you more, I want to know all about you, I cannot rest until I see your glory fully!”

            Moses, spoke to God as close as anyone ever had except for Christ, and he still wanted more. Moses was not content simply to meet God once a week in a sanctuary, not content to have some vague notion of a God who lived in his vicinity, Moses wanted all of God and Moses was willing to break the mold to do so. Moses climbed Horeb, Moses shunned idols and pursued God personally, Moses left his tent and found God in an out of the ordinary place in an out of the ordinary way.

            We too can find God in new places. We too can find God beyond the comforts we have tried to constrain God too. Beyond the four walls of a church or the limited bounds of our theologies and expectations. Beyond traditional ways of doing church and gathering together. God is on the move, and if we are willing to follow we will find God again and again.

            Does this mean all of what was is bad? Must faith expressions be completely fresh or else become dull idols and distractions? Of course not! God’s word to us is a sure place to find our footing and the traditions that come before us are often not only time honored but proven means of understanding those same scriptures. Even as our denominational structures are challenged and change, as they shift and are renewed, we find that the core streams of God’s work remains in some way. There is power in the past, there is power in what God has given us before, the eternal quality of God is that a gift of God can never become a curse.

            However, we must not be content to live in what was. We must not be content even with what currently is. The Kingdom of God is always advancing, the work of the Spirit is always renewed, the Son of God is eternally begotten of the Father. Fresh expressions, fresh manifestations of God’s power, they intersect with our ancient traditions in a way that rejuvenates the body of Christ. For two millennia the Church has stood, for two millennia the Church has changed, but for two millennia the Church has remained the body of Christ redeemed for the transformation of the world.

            So, this week let us heed the words of scripture, and seek after the face of God. Let us meet God where we never have before. Perhaps in reading a position on scripture we have never read before. Perhaps in taking up a friend on talking about that thing they are passionate about but that we never really gave any time to. Perhaps in a new spiritual practice like fasting, or praying a certain prayer, or reading scripture in a certain way. Yet, let us unite our pursuit of God with one unifying idea. That however we chase after God, we do with love as our banner, with truth as our guide, and with the brilliant glory of God as our goal. – Amen.

[1] Phyllis Tickle. “An Interim Report.” In Emergence Christianity (Ada, Michigan: Baker Books. 2012)

The Sins of our Fathers – 10/11/2020

Psalm 106: 1-27

Praise the Lord! O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; for his steadfast love endures forever. Who can utter the mighty doings of the Lord, or declare all his praise? Happy are those who observe justice, who do righteousness at all times.

Remember me, O Lord, when you show favor to your people; help me when you deliver them; that I may see the prosperity of your chosen ones, that I may rejoice in the gladness of your nation, that I may glory in your heritage.

Both we and our ancestors have sinned; we have committed iniquity, have done wickedly. Our ancestors, when they were in Egypt, did not consider your wonderful works; they did not remember the abundance of your steadfast love, but rebelled against the Most High at the Red Sea. Yet he saved them for his name’s sake so that he might make known his mighty power.

He rebuked the Red Sea, and it became dry; he led them through the deep as through a desert. So he saved them from the hand of the foe, and delivered them from the hand of the enemy. The waters covered their adversaries; not one of them was left. Then they believed his words; they sang his praise.

But they soon forgot his works; they did not wait for his counsel. But they had a wanton craving in the wilderness, and put God to the test in the desert; he gave them what they asked, but sent a wasting disease among them.

They were jealous of Moses in the camp, and of Aaron, the holy one of the Lord. The earth opened and swallowed up Dathan, and covered the faction of Abiram. Fire also broke out in their company; the flame burned up the wicked.

They made a calf at Horeb and worshiped a cast image. They exchanged the glory of God for the image of an ox that eats grass. They forgot God, their Savior, who had done great things in Egypt, wondrous works in the land of Ham, and awesome deeds by the Red Sea.

Therefore he said he would destroy them—had not Moses, his chosen one, stood in the breach before him, to turn away his wrath from destroying them.

Then they despised the pleasant land, having no faith in his promise. They grumbled in their tents, and did not obey the voice of the Lord. Therefore he raised his hand and swore to them that he would make them fall in the wilderness and would disperse their descendants among the nations, scattering them over the lands.

Sermon Text

            I am fascinated by the life and times of John Adams. The HBO documentary starring Paul Giamatti is one of my favorite docudramas, 1776 is one of my favorite stage musicals, anything that looks into the life of this man stands out to me. He was a brilliant thinker, a brilliant statesman, and you would be hard pressed to find a more incredible love than the one that existed between himself and his wife, Abigail. He is the complete package.

            John Adams is just one example of a fascinating person from the past. Others include, the doomed inventor Thomas Midgely Jr. someone who I discussed early on in my time here or the minimalist theologian Ulrich Zwingli. Even in scripture there are some figures that stand out among the others for being prominent or interesting. Many of the Kings of Judah and Israel, the post-Babylonian civic and religious leaders Ezra and Nehemiah, and so on and so forth. Our past is replete with people who can inspire us to greatness, who we can study with great intensity. However, in these studies and our reflection on the great figures of the past, we must be careful that our understanding of their life does not become whimsical or nostalgic.

            What I mean by this is that the reality of the people who came before us is often more complicated than we would like it to be. As in the modern world, very few people who became notable for what they did were people of spotless moral or social conscience. The prominent statesmen of the past, no matter the good they did, were often responsible for a great deal of evil. The great theologians, though they taught us of God and of Christ and formulated magnificent treatises on how we come into the body of Christ, often neglected the weightier matters of the law. Even within the Biblical narrative itself, we are often invited to read the lives of the characters within, not with rose colored glasses, but with a firm, honest, and critical lens.

            Returning to my favorite founding father, we find that, while John Adams escapes many of the sins of the other founding fathers, it is impossible not to look at his legacy and be critical of it. While he did not own slaves, and even wrote against the practice from time to time privately, he did not consider it a sufficiently pressing moral question to act upon. His wife, Abigail, disagreed and worked as an abolitionist. While he managed to avoid war with France, criticism of his presidency led to him forming the “Aliens and Sedition Act.” On one hand this made it nearly impossible to criticize the government without fear of retaliation, on the other it first made it harder to become a citizen and then deprived non-citizens of many of the rights they would have otherwise enjoyed.

            While it is easy for us to wave our hand at one or several of these features, after all most of these laws passed out of existence within three years of their passing. After all, it was normal in that day and age to keep slaves. None of these offenses were without criticism even in their own time. Slavery was actively opposed by many in the colonies, including the initial Methodist movement before it sold-out to the popular culture of the time. His silence therefore would have rung loud and clear to those with ears to hear it. Regarding the Alien and Seditions Acts – it led to the unforgiveable act of Japanese Internment during WWII.

            The two understandings, the lauding of his goodness and the condemnation of his failures, are not oppositional beliefs. The student of history must be willing to do both. We cannot learn from the past if we pretend that it is the ideal that we somehow lost, as Ecclesiastes puts it, “Do not say, “Why were the former days better than these? ”For it is not from wisdom that you ask this.” (Eccl. 7:10) Nostalgia does very little good, and quite a bit of evil. On the other hand, blind opposition to things past causes us to lose the wisdom it holds. Many problems we have today we have had for ages, and the past has some wisdom about them.

            There has been persistent discussion in recent years, truly for a few decades, over how we should treat the past. As critical means of analysis have become more prevalent in academia they have been met with open arms by some, and deep suspicion and opposition by others. For my part, I earned my degree in Religious Studies focusing on critical histories of the Christian tradition and indeed have worked throughout seminary with critical theories of all colors. In all the years that I have been studying through critical lenses, never once was I called upon to denounce my faith, my lineage (muddled though it may be,) or my sense of self. However, at every step I was invited to think about what I thought I knew in new ways, from new perspectives.

            The art of reviewing the past and acknowledging the good and bad within it is not something that we have to go blindly into, in fact it does not require any formal knowledge of post-modernism or post-colonial theory or any other such framework. I say this because we have one of the most comprehensive examples of historical criticism available to us in this, that is to say, in the Holy Bible. This book, our sacred scripture, is made up of 66 books.

Of those books, something like 10 of them directly act as historical accounts and critiques of the Kings of Israel and their reigns. The 12 prophets utilize the history of God’s people to inform their contemporaries of how far back their corruption goes, the Psalms often do the same. Even in the books that are not strictly historical we find similar critiques – the five books of Moses, Ezra and Nehemiah, even Ruth and Esther to a degree, all paint a picture of God’s people that is not just good people doing good things, but complicated people doing both good and evil with their life. Look at any Biblical figure, you will only find one who is above reproach, who is worthy of exaltation and veneration, only one Christ who is our salvation and example,

            It is paramount that we do not think our histories, whether they be our family histories, our national histories, or our denominational and theological histories are greater than the histories recorded in scripture. If the word of God was capable of analyzing its subjects, lifting up what was good and condemning what was bad, without making excuses for their behavior or ignoring the nastier aspects of their life, then we have no excuse for not being able to do the same. I will always be fascinated by John Adams, I will always in some ways see him as a model rabble rousing statesmen, but I cannot do so without treating with equal seriousness the sins he committed against his fellow human beings.

            Popular discourse surrounding history in recent years has become a polarizing one. There are those who would like the figures of the past to stay in our exalted memory, paragons of the ideals that we have lifted above all others. There are others, who through legitimate means of analysis, have decided that the sins of the past cannot be ignored. That we cannot pretend that our forebearers were often exceedingly wicked toward those unlike themselves. That it is difficult to lift up as a paragon of virtue, those who owned other human beings as a means of producing capital.

            However, I do not believe that there is truly so great a gulf between the two ideals. In both cases, people desire to connect with the past in some earnest way. On one side, the legitimate goods of the past need to be lifted up and emulated and on the other the real and present evil of ages past must be exposed for what it was. If we wish to grow, not only as individuals but as a culture, then both are necessary. Duality is inherent in any human being, in any human society, and failure to acknowledge success or failure ultimately results in a stagnant and increasingly insular society.

            Our scripture today stands out to us because, for the entirety of Psalm 106 that author makes no claim to the goodness of God’s people. The Psalmist asks for God make them right, to restore God’s heritage within themself, but then lists every sin they can think of their people committing. In the conclusion, which we did not hear, the Psalmist asks for their people to be returned to the promised land, telling us that this Psalm was written during the Babylonian exile. It was in exile, when all the pet pleasures and distractions of Israel were removed, that this rumination became possible. The realization that the great legacy of Israel was more complicated than just being God’s people but was actually fraught with sin and betrayal only came when the people could not delude themselves otherwise.

            For us today, facing one of the most contentious elections in our history. For us today, in the midst of a deadly pandemic. For us today, in a country that cannot decide on how it wants to tell its story. We will hopefully find ourselves becoming more considerate of how we got where we are. Not through a long history of sinless leaders and populace, but a long a troubled fight to establish a truly good society. In every generation there is a call to moral action, there are some successes and some failings. There are epochs of prosperity and justice and goodness, but always in the shadows there is injustice. We cannot stand on the summit of our history any more than Israel could remain on Sinai, because at the foot of the mountain will always be our golden calf.

We cannot talk about the American Revolution and the fight for liberty without addressing the failure to free the enslaved. Cannot speak of Westward expansion without talking about the genocide of Native Americans. Cannot talk about Lincoln’s emancipation of the enslaved without talking about his view that the black race was inferior and could not live among whites. We cannot talk about the Civil Rights Movement without addressing the prison industrial complex. And as we go about our lives today, we must understand that we are writing a history people will someday read.

            Will we stand out as a dark era of evil or a paragon of virtue. That is a decision we must make, and it can only happen when we reject the evil we have inherited and accept our true heritage which is found in righteousness, not in blind love of our past. In goodness alone not in warm feelings of empty pride. In Christ alone not in the exaltation and apotheosis of any other hero. Let us study, let us be unsettled, and let us be willing to put away and grow beyond the Sins of our Fathers. – Amen.

Be Honest Tenants – Lectionary 10/04/2020

Matthew 21:33-46

“Listen to another parable. There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a watchtower. Then he leased it to tenants and went to another country. When the harvest time had come, he sent his slaves to the tenants to collect his produce.

But the tenants seized his slaves and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. Again he sent other slaves, more than the first; and they treated them in the same way. Finally he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.’

So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him. Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” They said to him, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time.”

Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the scriptures:

‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone;

this was the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes’?

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. The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.”

When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them. They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, because they regarded him as a prophet.

Sermon Text

            Today the Church celebrates, “World Communion Sunday.” It is a moment to remember that when we take the bread and the cup, we do so as a single people united by Christ. The Spirit that moves between us here is the same Spirit that unites us to all Christians across the world. The Kingdom of God knows know borders, it has no language, it is above and beyond all categories that we would wish to impose upon ourselves. The unity of the Kingdom, made up of disparate and distinct parts and personalities, expressed in the sacramental act that we all participate in today.

            We do not inhabit the Kingdom simply as passive benefactors of God’s goodness, but active caretakers of those who God have given into our charge. We do not belong to ourselves, but to the Church, the Church does not belong to us, but to Christ alone. Our whole life is wrapped up in a consistent and continual service of love to all we meet. We are caretakers of God’s kingdom, sustained by the Grace given freely and abundantly to us. We are tenants in the vineyard which God has prepared for us.

            This creates a dual identity in us, as far as today’s parable is concerned. On one hand we are the produce of the Kingdom of God, the grapes which are grown within the vineyard. On the other, we are the caretakers of that same vineyard. We are born from the ground of God’s goodness, and as we are raised up in the shade of the vines we come to care for that very same ground. Like Adam born out of the clay of Eden to be its caretaker, we are born from the vineyard of God to help continue its growth. We are Tenant and we are crop, and in both capacities we await the coming of God who will gather us together and say to us, “Good and faithful servant.”

            At least that is the hope. To be told we have served God faithfully, we must in fact serve God faithfully. We must tend the vineyard which has been given us, and carry out the ordinances of God to the fullest extent. We can not neglect the weighty call upon our lives to spread the Gospel, to love our neighbors and our enemies in equal measure, to let go of all our unrighteousness and put on Christ’s own righteousness. We are called to be a nation of priests, and a holy people in service to God and one another.

            The Parable of the Tenants transforms an earlier parable, namely the song of the Vineyard in Isaiah 5. In that passage God looks to Jerusalem, to Judah, to the surviving remnant of the people of God, and describes how he loves them. God loved them enough to plant them, to guard them, to raise up everything they needed to thrive. Yet, the song says, they produced thorns and bad grapes, they were unfit for their purpose, and the only thing to be done with them was to uproot them and destroy the vineyard. In particular, the people are accused of killing one another rather than living justly, causing people to cry out against their evil rather than praise their righteousness.

            Jesus uses this parable, in which the understanding is that God’s people have failed to meet expectations and shifts the focus away from the produce of the vineyard to those who are working it. When the rightful owner sends slaves to take the good produce from the vineyard, the tenants kill them. Even the son of the owner, sent as a final show of force against the wicked tenants, is killed by them in an attempt to seize the land for themselves. Bloodshed, rather than justice. Blood that cries out from the ground rather than righteousness. Destruction is promised for the tenants, while the vineyard – rather than being destroyed as it is in Isaiah – is given over to other people who will tend it faithfully.

            We are blessed that God has decided that his people are worth saving rather than destroying. Ever since the Flood, God’s mission in the world has been to redeem it through blessings rather than chastisement. If a flood could not drown evil, then perhaps grace could stamp it out through purification and growth. God redeems the land which has been cursed. God restores the crop that was allowed to rot in the ground. God tends to God’s vineyard when those put in charge of it have failed. God is in the business of redemption and God does not abandon even the most dire of situations.

            As recipients of this gift of redemption, we have nothing we can do but give thanks to God. There are those of us who have much that we can be thankful for being redeemed from and those of us with far fewer offenses that have needed covering, but all of us have some blemish that we can praise God for having healed. The hurt of the past, the sins we have committed, the evil we have tolerated, all washed in the redemptive work of God who has not given up on the beloved creation.

            However, we are not simply recipients of God’s grace. We are stewards of it. It is not the duty of ministers alone to care for the church, although we are called specifically to do so. Every person called to be a part of the body of Christ has an obligation toward its wellbeing. No one in all the earth is exempt from their role as steward of God’s grace. We are to give freely of what we are given, to return all that is due to God to God, and at the end of all things to be found honest tenants of all that we have been given.

            On this World Communion Sunday, we should reflect on just how miraculous a gift our salvation is. How we, fallen and prone to wander as we are, can find – not only forgiveness – but abundant goodness. Called not simply to sit and do nothing, but to participate in the grace God has given us. Our taking of the bread and of the cup, our remembrance of Christ’s work, empowers us.

            As stewards of God’s gift we should be open to all those we meet, ready to listen and understand even the most disparate of opinions. At the same time we must be stewards of the truth which is given to us not only within scripture, but in all places where reality is revealed to us – in science, in honesty, in all earnest evaluation of what is. We must be champions of the oppressed, of the plight of the poor and the disadvantaged in all the world. We must love our enemies with the same ferocity, perhaps with even more ferocity, than we love our own friends. We must live into the righteousness of God which brings us to repentance.

            Only when the promise of the Communion table is truly fulfilled, when people of all races, nations, and creeds gather together with Christ as their banner and eat together, will we know we have succeeded in our mission. When we do not regard one nation or another as more significant in God’s economy, one people or another as more righteous or Godly,  when every obstacle to our participation in God’s grace is removed, then we will know that the Kingdom is truly here among us.

The Kingdom of God, founded in antiquity long forgotten, the beloved vineyard grown up and cared for with God’s grace alone. It is from it we are born, and we are its tenants until Christ returns in final victory. Let us live into our role fully. Let us never back down from doing what is right. Let us rebuke all who do evil and bless all who do what is right. Let us atone for all the sins we have committed and make restitution to all we have wronged. Be honest Tenants, now and forever, and may God bless the work as we pursue the righteousness of the one who calls us. – Amen.