Call and Response

 Matthew 22:1-14     Lectionary 28     October 12, 2014

 

“The Lord be with you.”  (“And also with you”)  We’ve just engaged in a liturgical call and response!

You’re accustomed to many different calls and responses.  “Dinner’s ready!”  (“I’m on my way!”)  “I love you.”  (“I love you, too.”)  At William and Mary football games, the cheerleaders will encourage the crowd to participate in a call and response.   They’ll say, “Go!” – and fans are supposed to respond, “Tribe!”  (“Go Tribe!”)

In the gospels of Mark, Matthew, Luke and John there are many stories of calls and responses.  Since we’re reading in the gospel of Matthew this year, here’s one that happens 18 chapters before this morning’s story: As [Jesus] walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.”  Immediately they left their nets and followed him.  As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them.  Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him. (Matt. 4:18-20)

In the gospel stories not all respond, “yes!” when Jesus calls them. Do you remember another call and response, three chapters before this morning’s story in the gospel of Matthew: Jesus said to him, “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor,…then come, follow me.” When the young man heard this word, he went away grieving, for he had many possessions.  (Matthew 19:21-22)

The call and response story we read this morning is a strange story – as strange as anything in Flannery O’Connor.  (Just saying Flannery O’Connor’s name elicits groans from those who studied some of her stories last spring!)  Right away, this morning, we see that the story is going to be strange, because it begins: Once more Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying …  A parable is always a strange story.  In its strangeness, it is told to provoke a response from those of us who hear it or read it.

A parable is always a story comparing something to the kingdom of heaven (which can’t be explained in any other way).  Once more Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son. He sent his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding banquet, but they would not come.”  Notice: “those who had been invited to the wedding banquet.”  This is not a surprise invitation!  They had all received a “Save the Date” card.  They had probably they had put those cards on their refrigerators.  “But they would not come.”  They would not come to the joy and celebrationof a wedding feast!   Why not?!

The story gets even more strange. The king begins to plead with those he has invited!  (What kind of a king would do that?!)  Again he sent other slaves, saying, ‘Tell those who have been invited: ‘Look, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet.’ But they made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business, …

They make light of the invitation, the call to join in celebration! Why?  They are giving first attention to their farms, to their businesses.  So – are they thinking that the wedding banquet isn’t as important as their daily concerns?  Do they think they don’t have time for the wedding banquet?  Are they not able to look up from their day-to-day to-do lists?

A couple of weeks after I returned from my sabbatical, one of you asked, “Are you back in the groove?” I immediately said, “I don’t want to get back into that groove!”  My response took the man by surprise!  But the groove I had been in had ground me down.  I had spent too much time with my head down, working, working, working; ignoring the joy of the wedding banquet.

Have you ever found yourself ground down by the cares and concerns of your equivalents to your farm and business? Of course you have!  Running the children to games and lessons.  Caring for an ill or disabled loved one.  Getting to the airport to catch yet another airplane.  Simply getting up in the morning and going to work becomes a grind – if there is no joy and celebration!  How deadening this is.

Here’s the thing. All of us fall into this when we do not receive the gift of sabbath time that God is desperately trying to give us.  Sabbath time is wedding banquet time!  For all of you participating in the Bible studies, who are thinking about “law and gospel,” here is the law in this passage: what a terrible thing to be seduced by our daily concerns, to be condemned to daily lives of anxiety and worry, the constant pressure-packed awareness, everyday, that there’s more work to be done to maintain whatever are our farms and businesses.  But here’s the gospel, the good news: God has intervened into the bad news of our daily lives.  In the flesh and blood of Jesus the Christ, in his death and resurrection, God invites us to the wedding banquet!  God the Holy Spirit uses this morning’s parable, for instance, to call us to a response: to say “yes” to the joy and celebration that is the Kingdom of God.  We are baptized into that wedding feast.

‘Tell those who have been invited: ‘Look, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet.’ Biblical commentators see this to have been addressed to those ancient Scribes and Pharisees, the leaders of the chosen people of God: that they are the ones who had been the first invited when God made the covenant with Abraham, and renewed the covenant through Isaac and Jacob and Joseph, and through the Hebrew prophets: Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and the rest. But, the parable continues, they made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business,while the rest seized his slaves, mistreated them, and killed them. The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city.  (What hyperbole!  To think that the king did all that while the food was waiting at the wedding banquet!)

But then here’s what happens. The king (who, of course, stands for God) invites others.  God invites people like you and me!   Then he said to his slaves, ‘The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.’”   Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests.

That’s us: the good and the bad! We aren’t included according to merit.

Daily you and I are called to say “Yes!” to the joy and celebration of the wedding banquet. It is ours through the death and resurrection of Jesus the Christ.  Daily you and I are called to respond, “Yes!” to our baptisms into the life of resurrection.

I think that’s how to understand the image of the wedding robe in the strange concluding verses of this strange parable. Do you remember that?  “But when the kind came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe.”  This makes me think of a remarkably similar metaphor that Luther uses: of baptism as our “daily garment.”

When he teaches about baptism in the Small Catechism, Luther asks: “What then is the significance of such a baptism with water?”  He answers: “It signifies that the old creature in us with all sins and evil desires is to be drowned and die through daily contrition and repentance, and on the other hand that daily a new person is to come forth and rise up to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.”

And then this, from the Large Catechism: “Therefore let all Christians regard their baptism as the daily garment that they are to wear all the time.  Every day they should be found in faith and with its fruits, suppressing the old creature and growing up in the new.”  What a helpful image!  When you’re getting dressed each morning, think of putting on the garment of your baptism!

In the parable we read: Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests.  That’s us!  We are the guests.  We are the “good and bad,” each one of us!  Each one of us is both sinner and saint, “suppressing the old creature and growing up in the new” every day.

Here is the gospel, the good news. Jesus the Christ has won our salvation, through his death and resurrection.  We are baptized into that salvation, into the joy and celebration of the wedding banquet.  And so, daily, we are called to respond, to put on our wedding robes, our daily garment of baptism; to resist the ways our “farms” and our “businesses” will grind us down if we let them; instead, look up from that daily grind, to revel in the wedding banquet of the Son, living in the resurrection!

What joy there is in the life of faith!

In the name of God who is Father and Son and Holy Spirit. Amen

 

Pastor Andy Ballentine

God’s Insanity

Matthew 21:33-46     Pentecost 17  October 5, 2014

It was just the day before that Jesus rode though the streets of Jerusalem on a donkey. People sang praises to him as he passed. And while the public sang, Hosanna in the highest, the chief priests and the scribes got even angrier. Not even one day later, there was Jesus – offending people– again. He had been to the temple, upsetting those selling honor to God in the form of a bird or a goat for a sacrifice. There were people and feathers scrambling everywhere. After that chaotic scene, he calmly proceeded to heal the sick, and make the lame walk and blind eyes see. If the religious authorities had not been gunning for Jesus before, they certainly were now. And yet Jesus returned to the temple the next day to teach.

But the chief priests and the elders thought they had the market on authority; after all, it had been given to them by God in the time of Moses and was passed down for generations. And so they confronted Jesus. By what authority are you doing these things?! they demanded. We certainly didn’t give it to you. Just who do you think you are?

Jesus answered them with three parables. We read the first of these last week, the parable of the two sons, the Yes and No brothers. We read the second one this week. Jesus is telling the religious authorities this absurd, wildly outrageous, over the top parable of the Wicked Tenants. I have always read this story as an example of God’s violent judgment. But I read it a little closer. Let’s step back and look at it again.

There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, and leased it. Then the landowner left, not only town, but the country, entrusting his vineyards to the renters. After the grapes were harvested, the owner sent his servants to collect them. Some of the servants were beaten, some stoned, others killed.

The phrase, “Bite me once shame on you. Bite me twice shame on me” comes to mind. The landowner does not send police or security guards. He sent more servants, and the same thing happens.  Now the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting a different result. For the third time, this insane landowner sent someone again, only his time, he sent his son.

And the tenants throw him out of the vineyard, and then kill him, thinking that they will gain an inheritance. Excuse me? Why would they expect an inheritance? Why would the owner leave the vineyard to them after they killed, and killed, and killed again?

Jesus asks the chief priests and the elders who were listening to his story, “What will the landlord do when he comes?” It is an open and shut case. There is no question of guilt. It is a matter of pronouncing the judgment and punishment.

Now if this happened in America, you would likely see it worked out on Judge Judy. She would lean forward and shout at the guilty ones, “I’m smarter on my worst day than you are on your best day. I eat morons like you for breakfast. You’re going to be crying before this day is over.” Judge Judy, Judge Joe Brown, Law and Order, The People’s Court, Night Court, —how we love to see the guilty get what they deserve.

But things are not always what they seem. To put this parable in its political and socio-economic context, there was widespread dispossession of family farmers from their family lands. Their land was taken from them. They were no longer land owners; they became tenants on what had been their family farms. We can’t convict the tenants’ out of hand, as maybe this was their best hope to get back what they lost. Their actions “seem to represent an act of desperation, a reflection of their vulnerability in a subsistence economy,” observes Professor Stan Saunders[1].

Jesus was telling this parable to the leaders of Israel, who did not put themselves in the place of the tenants. They identified with the landowners. “What will the landlord do when he comes?” Jesus asks. “He will put those miserable wretches to death!” the leaders say. That might be how we would answer, too. But notice that is not Jesus who declares this sentence. The religious authorities condemn themselves. They are the ones who answer with punishment.

Saunders writes, “…by declaring what they would do, the Jewish elites pronounce their own judgment, one that is congruent not only with their own practices but with their perception of who God is. This does not mean, however, that their self-understanding defines who God is or circumscribes God’s capacity to act in forgiveness or mercy toward other.[2]”

Suddenly the question is no longer “What will the landowner do,” but rather “What did the landowner do.” And the answer to that question is Jesus.  Jesus does not sweep their sins under the rug. Through the telling of this parable, Jesus has brought out into the light the chief priests’ and the elders’ self-serving self-righteousness. He shows them their disregard for humanity and for God’s kingdom. But then he goes on, not saying that he would string up those no good renters and give them exactly what they deserve. Instead, he recites Psalm 118, and the issue is no longer the vineyard, but a totally new structure in which Jesus, the son who was killed and raised from the dead, is the cornerstone. Through Jesus’ death and resurrection, the old ways will be crushed under his tombstone.

We cannot control the depth and breadth of God’s mercy, but the chief priests and the elders can’t put their trust in that. They place their trust in themselves, in their knowledge, in their own authority. Through their sin of unbelief, they have cut themselves off from the salvation offered to them. Absolutely free salvation, trusting God’s forgiveness through Jesus, is too hard to comprehend. They do not want grace. They want law. They want to earn their own way. They end up being judged as they judge others –for their knowledge, for their deeds, and for their adherence to the law. And so, through their own doing, they exclude themselves from God’s kingdom, a kingdom which is not just in the future, but also now, in the present.

So ends this crazy, outlandish, amazing parable. Remember a few years ago, when people wore the bracelets with WWJD on them – meaning, What Would Jesus Do? What would God do? We know. God forgives seventy times seven, and invites tax collectors and prostitutes to dinner, and throws a party for the son who took his inheritance and squandered it, and takes off after one lost sheep. God sends person after person to tell us about how life is in God’s kingdom, until finally he sends his son. God is outrageous, extravagant, and wild. Possibly insane. That’s not what I would do. Thank God.

[1] Saunders, Stan. “Living By the Word.” The Christian Century. 1 October 2014: 20. Print.

[2] Ibid.

~Pastor Cheryl Ann Griffin

 

When We Bear the Fruit of Humility, We Receive Freedom and Joy!

 

Philippians 2:1-13     Lectionary 26     September 28, 2014

 

As we practice the faith, God the Holy Spirit bears fruit within us.  When we bear the fruit of humility, we receive freedom and joy!

Listen again to St. Paul’s teaching about humility. He writes this to the Jesus people in the ancient city of Philippi: If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy,make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.  Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves.  Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.

How do you respond to these words?

The first thing to say is that these could be some of the most dangerous teachings in the Bible! [B]e of the same mind, we read, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.  Well, what about when we disagree with each other?  Are we being sinful when we disagree with each other?  In fact, that has caused serious conflict in churches, countless times!  We’re supposed to be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind, and so, we think, we can’t have differences of opinion. So we suppress our disagreements when they are small (which is when we can deal with them).  But how often have small disagreements festered, becoming resentments too big to ignore any longer – which is when people begin fighting with each other?  What does it means to be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind? Certainly, this means: Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus. But isn’t it dangerous to think that we must agree about every little thing?

The next verses are dangerous, too: Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.  Well, what about when we are needing to take care of ourselves?  Is that selfish?  Isn’t this teaching us not to take care of ourselves, but to attend to the interests of others?

Think of how dangerous that can become! How many do you know who have become burnt out at church, who don’t even show up any more, because they gave and gave and gave – way beyond the point of joyful generosity; when, instead, they came to feel trapped by a resentful sense of duty?  (Perhaps you have gone through such a period of resentment and burn out.)

Here is what I would suggest. Since Jesus declared two commandments to sum up all that is in God’s holy law (One is to love God with all our being.  The other is: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”), let us read all ethical teachings in the Bible through these lenses.

“You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” There’s good boundary-setting  balance in those words, isn’t there?  It doesn’t say, “You shall love your neighbor and not yourself.”  It certainly doesn’t say, “You shall love your neighbor and neglect yourself so that you burn yourself out and feel angry and resentful.”

Isn’t God using Paul’s words to call us to a healthy humility?  If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy,make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.  Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves.  Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.

Our model is Jesus.

St. Paul continues, quoting what might have actually been a hymn in use among ancient congregations of Jesus people:  

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,

who, though he was in the form of God,

did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited,

but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.

And being found in human form, he humbled himself

and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross.

As we practice the faith, God the Holy Spirit bears fruit within us.  When we bear the fruit of humility, what a counter cultural life we lead!  Think of this.  When we are acting out of a healthy humility, we don’t have to immediately get upset about something that people are screaming about on FOX news and MSNBC.  We don’t have to immediately express our reactions on facebook.  In healthy humility, we can be thoughtful and considerate – considering that, perhaps, we don’t have all the information we need, and that, perhaps, we can be patient and compassionate.  I wonder what our culture would be like if more imitated us, in our witness to Christ, as we bear the fruit of humility?  Wouldn’t our culture would be much less angry?

As we practice the faith, God the Holy Spirit bears fruit within us.  When we bear the fruit of humility, we receive freedom and joy!  What freedom it is, not to immediately have to rush to judgment!  What freedom there is when we can resist the sin of pride, which is the opposite of humility.

Whenever you and I are hard on ourselves because we’re not accomplishing enough, that is the sin of pride – because, in our pride, we think it all depends on us.  Whenever you and I are feeling overwhelmed by how much we have to do, that is the sin of pride – because, in our pride, we think it all depends on us.

In a healthy humility, we simply give ourselves to God.  And then we give ourselves to the work God has given us to do.

In a healthy humility, we know we cannot cause results to happen. We can simply do the work.  We trust God.  We trust that God will do with our work what God wants to do.        What freedom there is in that!  What joy there is in following the model of our Lord, who embodied the love of God in his humble service, in his compassion to all he encountered, all who were in spiritual and emotional and physical need.

That is the model of our Lord who calls us to follow; he who practiced a healthy humility, who engaged in humble service.  He simply did the work.  The results were up to God.  St. Paul writes:

Therefore, God also highly exalted him

and gave him the name that is above every name,

so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend,

in heaven and on earth and under the earth,

and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,

to the glory of God the Father.

In the name of God, who is Father and Son and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

 

Pastor Andy Ballentine

In all Fairness

Matthew 20:1-16    Lectionary 25     September 21, 2014

“It’s not fair!” How many times have you heard that, especially if you are a parent? “She’s got more than me! It’s not fair!” I was here first! It’s not fair!” “I wanted to be the one to shave the dog! It’s not fair!” How many times have you thought, if not said out loud, “It’s not fair!”? Have you had the experience of a colleague receiving credit for your work, or worked with someone who passes off your brilliant idea as her own? Maybe, like the late afternoon workers in our parable, you’ve worked longer and harder than someone else, and yet he got the promotion and pay increase instead of you. Unfair situations in our lives and in the world happen every day. Justice can seem either unattainable or arbitrary. Our reading would seem to confirm this.

To place this parable in its Biblical context, Peter had just told Jesus that he and the disciples had left everything to follow him, and then he asked, “What’s our reward going to be?” Jesus finished their discussion with the same concluding words as our reading this morning, saying, “But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.”

To place our story in historical context, our gospel writer, Matthew, was writing to a community in which there were converts from Judaism, people who had been recipients of God’s promises all along. Now there were new converts who had come. Was it fair, was it just, to include people who weren’t part of the original promises, people who were not there from the beginning? This was the issue that sparked our parable. God’s generosity and fairness shown in welcoming all people wasn’t embraced by everyone. I am remembering a bumper sticker that I had seen–“Jesus loves you, but I’m his favorite.”

If you were to place yourself in this story, which character would you be? First, imagine yourself to be one of the people employed near the end of the day. Maybe some had been up all night with a sick child, or had to take their mother to the doctor in the morning. Or maybe their car had broken down, and so they walked 15 miles to get to the place where bosses came looking for laborers. Whatever the reason, they had not succeeded in being able to contract for a full day’s work. They were surprised and delighted when the vineyard owner came in the afternoon and told them to come with him. The business owner promised to pay them “what was right.” However much money that would be, they could only trust and be thankful. They weren’t expecting a lot, but whatever money they received would be more than they had hoped for when they started their day. When it was quitting time, they were shocked when the owner handed them their pay. It was a fair wage for a full day’s work, and for a partial day of work, it was very generous!

Now imagine yourself as one of the first workers hired. They had been up before the sun peeked up over the horizon. As was the custom, stood together outside waiting for someone to come to give them work to do. They had to put food on the table, and so were grateful for a job. The owner of the vineyard had told them how much they would be paid, and the amount was a fair day’s wage. At the end of the day, they were both worn out and proud of the work they had done.  Watching the part-time workers receive their pay, they were overjoyed! They could only imagine how much more they would get! But when they held out their hands, it wasn’t more. They had worked more hours and gotten the same wages. Sure, they got what was promised to them, what they agreed to, but per hour wage they were making less than half of some of the others. It wasn’t fair! You could see the redness of righteous indignation creeping up their face. Envy became more important than what they received.

Now put yourself in the place of the owner of the vineyard.  He had gone out in the early morning to find workers. He promised them a fair wage for their labor. We aren’t told if the owner had found enough workers the first time, if he even needed more people, but we do know that the vineyard owner went out again, and again, and again. Each time, he brought more people to work on his land. By our standards, the vineyard owner was fair to the early morning workers. He paid them in accordance with his promise. To those hired later, and later, and later, he was generous, and more generous, and even more generous.

We have been both the recipient and the giver of generosity, and we have been both the recipient and the giver of human justice. David Lose points out the choices we make everyday in this regard:

[When we] forget all the times a colleague has been helpful and obsess about a perceived slight. Or when we overlook all those who drive their cars quite reasonably but instead get driven to distraction by the one guy who cuts us off. Or when we overlook the thousand kindnesses a partner or friend has performed on our behalf but nurse a grudge about the one thing they did to hurt our feelings. At each of these turns, we can choose: will we call for justice, or will we live out of generosity….[1]

In the time of Jesus, extreme generosity was an invitation to a more permanent relationship. “In the ancient patronage system, giving more than the usual wage spoke of a relationship that invited those who were waiting for work into a long term patron relationship with the one who was generous to them.[2]”

Is God’s idea of what is just and what is fair different than ours? What if the aim of God’s justice is not for punishment, but to achieve something more? Pastor Debbie Blue observes:

For us, bringing someone to justice means they suffer the consequences of their crime or they are rewarded for their achievements. For God, bringing someone to justice means they are brought back into the circle of God’s embrace. That’s not the opposite of mercy. Justice is to reinstate the connection of the covenant that God has established. It is to restore us in love to each other and God. And maybe the way to get there, at least it seems to be the case in the Bible, in the story of Jesus, is not all sweetness and candy, but that’s where God’s going in God’s justice and in God’s mercy.

God is shameless and tireless in God’s pursuit of us, and everybody. God just keeps going back and going back and going back again. And most of the time people aren’t even looking to be hired[3].

What if relationship is God’s priority? What if it was for us, too? What if treating each other with respect and love was more important than being right? What if envy were less important than what we receive?

~ The Reverend Cheryl Ann Griffin

[1] Lose, David. …In the Meantime, September 15, 2014. Web.

[2] Malina, Bruce. A Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels. Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2003. P. 125. Print.

[3] Blue, Debbie. Sensual Orthodoxy. Saint Paul: Cathedral Hill Press. 1989. p. 85. Print.

(If you would like a copy of an earlier sermon, e-mail Pastor Ballentine or Pastor Griffin and s/he’ll send you a copy!)