Saturday, October 7, 2017

YOU Are the Tenants!

Matthew 21:33-46
October 8, 2017


Jesus is not done with the Temple authorities.  He has just told one little parable aimed at their hypocrisy, the one from last week about the two brothers.  Now he tells another parable, and this one is even more pointed.  

He tells a story about a wealthy landowner who goes away, leasing his vineyard to some tenants.  But when harvest time comes the tenants refuse to give the landowner the profits, presumably barrels of wine, and they abuse the collection agents he sends.  Finally the owner sends his son and they kill him, somehow imagining that they will thereby inherit the vineyard.      

So when the parable is over, and Jesus asks the priests and elders what the landowner will do, they indignantly huff that “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,” duh.  

These priests and elders are from the same class as other owners and investors.  Their wealth depends on other people’s hard work.  It would have really made them fearful and angry that some tenants would act so brazenly and offensively.  Nothing terrifies people in the upper class more than that the workers get wise to their situation and either stop working or simply take over the means of production.  The workers far outnumber the owners, of course, and if they ever got together the owners fear the business end of pitchforks… which does repeatedly happen, historically.  

Hence the rulers maintain an elaborate system of laws and law enforcement, pretending that its legitimacy comes from God or the people or whomever.  So that if something like this ever does happen they have the means to apply maximum violence and “put those wretches to a miserable death” and give the vineyard to workers who know their place.  The whole point being that the vineyard exists solely for the benefit of the owner.  Which is to say that the economy exists solely to benefit the people at the top.  The workers should just shut up and be glad they have the privilege of jobs at all.

Jesus deliberately tells a story in which these priests and elders would automatically and naturally identify themselves with the owner.  There are other audiences.  Had he told this story to the kind of poor people he was associating with back in Galilee, they might be cheering for the tenants!  They might have fantasies about telling the landlord’s collection agents to shove it!  They might be quite happy if the landlord’s privileged, pampered, stuck-up, arrogant son shows up and somehow has an “accident” that kills him.

Jesus is poking into some very delicate ground here, even for us.  How we feel about terms like “wealth redistribution,” or “reparations,” indeed, how we feel about this parable on its surface, is very telling.  Some of us have heard this parable in church all our lives so we know where it’s going.  But if we hear a similar story on the news about workers rising up to takeover a factory or a plantation, where do we come down?  For whom are we rooting in the struggle between the haves and the have nots?  For whom do we make excuses?  

What if we listened to ourselves and noticed that we are in complete solidarity with the priests and elders here, when they self-righteously affirm that of course the owner “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,” and rightly so?


Perhaps the Lord pauses here to let these establishment people vent for a while about how bad those tenants are, and what would happen if we let such people get away with theft and murder, and what’s this world coming to when a man can’t get the lawful benefit of his wise investment, and we can’t go around punishing job creators, and so forth.

Eventually Jesus quietly quotes Psalm 118 to them.  Yeah, he says, but the Bible says: “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes.”  To which he no doubt gets back a bunch of blank stares.  What does that have to do with anything?  How did we get from wicked tenants to builders?

If you’ve ever watched a waller at work they are all about finding and shaping stones to fit perfectly together.  At the end of the day there will be a stretch of well-constructed wall… and a pile of rejected stones on the side, stones that didn’t fit because of their weird shapes and unusual sizes.  If these stones are still laying around when the wall is done, maybe they get chipped and broken for gravel or something.  But they’re not part of the wall.

Psalm 118 is about the Israelite people.  The humble, useless, misshapen rejects who were thrown out of Egypt, who are too eccentric and ornery to fit into any imperialistic project.  It is also a description of the people Jesus associates with, whom the leaders derisively dismiss as “tax collectors and prostitutes,” including the sick, the poor, the disabled, the powerless, the broken, foreigners, women, workers.  The kind of people who end up as, you know, tenant farmers or migrant agricultural laborers, people who have to stand on the street at dawn to sell themselves to landowners for a day’s work in their fields….

Psalm 118 is also about Jesus himself, God’s Son and Messiah, who is not fitting in to the establishment’s plan and agenda.  The assumption was that of course the Messiah would be a member of the owner-class, being a descendant of no less than King David.  These are the builders!  They know what kind and shape of rock is needed for the cornerstone!

Jesus is saying, “Yeah, well, maybe not.”  Jesus is saying, that in this faith, in Torah faith, the faith of escaped slaves, it always seems to be the hapless and the weak, the stones rejected by the Pharaohs and the Nebuchadnezzars and the Caesars, the stones tossed out by the owners and the investors and the managers, the ones dismissed as “sinners,” and “losers,” and “illegals,” and “terrorists,” and “unpatriotic,” and whatever other epithet they use indicating that these stones don’t fit in their glorious and necessary wall… who nevertheless get lifted up, dusted off, and redeemed by God.


So if you listen to this parable and you reflexively and viscerally identify with the owner, you are indicting yourself.  Because the real message of the parable is that, in God’s view, the owners are really the tenants who are not producing the fruit of God’s Kingdom.  In other words, Jesus expands the frame to the widest view, showing that this is not about some actual little vineyard but Israel itself and even the whole creation.  In a tone reminiscent of Nathan’s judgment against David, Jesus says to the priests and the elders, in effect, “YOU are the tenants!  YOU, the privileged leaders whom God allowed to be in charge, YOU are the ones who have rebelled against the One who owns the whole place!”  Jesus takes the judgment and condemnation of the owners and uses it against them.  There is, he says, Someone above you, and that One will treat you the way you treat those under you.

“Therefore I tell you,” says Jesus to the priests and elders, “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.”  The stone being Jesus, the real Messiah, representing God, who identifies with… the losers whom they have spent their whole existence oppressing with barely a second thought. 

God will indeed “put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time.” But instead of human law enforcement it’s going to be God’s law enforcement: the “rejected stones” are going to rise up and crush them.

The authorities want to arrest Jesus, not just for insulting them, but because, as they hear it, he is inciting violent rebellion.  That’s what they always hear when some suggests they are not legitimate 

The point here is that the vineyard has to produce the fruits of the Kingdom.  The leaders would certainly agree that the owner of a vineyard should get the produce.  Jesus is saying that God is the owner and God should get what God wants from God’s creation and world.  Rather than extractive, violent exploitation for the personal material gain of a few, God’s will is just the opposite.  If we pay any attention to the way Jesus describes the Kingdom of God, it is realized in compassion, humility, generosity, equality, non-violence, gratitude, wonder, joy, and love.  It is realized in trusting God to build something that includes all the stones, even putting the rejected ones in the most important places.  

In other words, God’s Kingdom is a kind of anti-kingdom where the values and practices of earthly, human regimes is counteracted and contradicted.  So that instead of a pyramid of power, the structure is flat and distributed.  Instead of trickling down, wealth and blessing well up from below.  Instead of a system where the many work to enrich the few, all share in and provide for all.  And in order to get there, Jesus talks repeatedly about reversal.  The last become first.  The losers win.  The sick are healed.  The dead are raised.  The misfit stone is the One that holds everything together.


One of the slogans used by 12-step groups is, “Let Go and Let God.”  The thing about that slogan is that the people who are holding on to the most have the most to let go of.  

The Kingdom of God is not something we hold on to.  It is not something we possess, maintain, manage, hoard, gain, or profit from.  If we try and live according to those kinds of acquisitive values, the values of ownership, we will quickly separate ourselves from God.  We become like the wicked tenants trying to own and control and exploit what isn’t theirs.  The consequences of that are severe and unpleasant.

God does not evaluate us according to what we end up having; rather what is important to God is what we lose, what we let go of, what we relinquish and renounce.  Jesus blesses the losers because anything we lose can no longer get in the way of God’s life and blessing coming to us.

God is all about the flow of grace into the world.  When we let go, especially when we let go of our very selves, renouncing, as Jesus says, all we have, then we allow ourselves to participate in that flow, that outpouring of the Spirit.  That is to be far richer than merely having a few things.  That letting go, because it enables us to know God, is the meaning of life.

Doing God's Will.

Matthew 21:23-32
October 1, 2017


In today’s reading it is now the day after Jesus has caused a major disturbance in the Temple.  He entered Jerusalem to the celebrations of a very large crowd waving palm branches and calling him the Son of David, the great king of old.  He booted merchants and brokers out of the Temple, and he healed the blind and the lame who came to him.  While children keep singing about him and he has an argument with the priests and scribes who were in charge.  It was a busy day.

The next day begins when, on the way from Bethany up to Jerusalem, which is a deep gorge, he curses a fruitless fig tree.  The fig tree clearly represents the old ineffectual, fruitless religious establishment, saying that what is important and invincible now is prayer and trusting in God.

Everything about Jesus here is action.  He doesn’t talk about entering Jerusalem according to the prophecy of Zechariah, on a donkey… he does it.  He doesn’t just rail about the injustices and corruption of the Temple… he goes into the Temple and actually starts pushing the commercial interests out, physically.  He doesn’t simply pray for the blind and the lame and wish them well… he heals their actual bodies.  He doesn’t just note that the fruitless fig tree is an analogy or symbol of the fruitlessness of the prevailing religious system… he makes a living — or dying — example out of it. 

He enters the Temple again and is immediately confronted by the leaders, “the chief priests and the elders of the people,” who want to know by what authority he is doing what he is doing.  Who gave him the right to challenge the accepted practices and the established order?  Who gave him permission to cause all this trouble?  Who said he could do any of this?

It was kind of a rhetorical question because in their minds there is no authority higher than God and they considered themselves to be God’s legitimate agents and stewards.  Jesus had committed acts that were obviously blasphemous, unpatriotic, and dangerous.  He assaulted the Temple, which was a national and religious shrine, not to mention a major profit center and tourist attraction!  He practically allowed himself to be hailed as king!  He challenged the legitimately chosen leaders!  He called them a fruitless and barren fig tree!    

So since God was clearly on their side, because everyone knows God is always on the side of the established religious, political, and economic leaders, they assumed Jesus could not claim God as his authority.  That would be ridiculous.  And if he claimed anyone or anything else as his authority, well, God trumped that.  It was a foolproof plan to outwit and silence Jesus!


Jesus, characteristically, refuses to answer the question.  He says, “I will also ask you one question; if you tell me the answer, then I will also tell you by what authority I do these things.  Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?”

This forces the elders and priests back into their huddle, as they try to figure out the best answer.  Their whole approach is to come up with an response that will give them the political advantage.  So they reason, “We can’t say John’s baptism was from heaven because then we’d have to explain why we didn’t follow him.  And we can’t say it was just made up because all the people think it was from heaven, and they will get angry with us, and they’re already pretty riled up from yesterday.  Let’s just refuse to answer.  Yeah, that’s it.”

So they break their little conference and come back to Jesus to say, “We don’t know.”

One thing it does not occur to them to ask is what is actually true.  They’re looking for the answer that will work best rhetorically and politically.  Maybe they’re even seeking the best answer legally.  But they don’t ask any theological questions.  They don’t ask whether John’s baptism was faithful to God’s will, as revealed in Scripture.  They don’t even unroll the Torah to discern whether what John was doing measures up.  They don’t ask what kind of effect John’s ministry had on people’s lives.  They don’t ask whether John really was a prophet, which is what the people see him as.  It’s all about maintaining their power, authority, and image.  They’re all about institutional preservation.  They’re not seeking the truth at all.

One thing I get tired of pretty quickly is attending church meetings and listening to ecclesiastical debates and conversations in which Jesus simply doesn’t come up.  It’s all about the Book of Order, or Robert’s Rules, or the correct procedure or administrative structure.  It’s all about what works in terms the latest insights in business management or psychology.  But we seem never to get around to the question of what is true and good.  For us that means what is faithful and obedient to Jesus.  I don’t understand why this isn’t the only question. 

Well… that’s not accurate.  I understand completely why it isn’t the only question.  If we listened first and foremost to Jesus then we might feel ourselves obligated as his disciples to do what he says.  And it’s much easier to just stick a picture of him out front as a kind of mascot, and then do as we please.  Just like these priests and elders were relying on their splendid building and their long traditions and their radiant vestments and their intense proficiency at making flawless sacrificial offerings and their profitability and their patriotism and their connections with the economic and political elite and their deep knowledge of the details of the Torah.

But it’s all a big expensive show.  Because at bottom what they are saying and doing has no effect on the injustice, the violence, the exploitation, the inequality, the hunger, the bondage, and the suffering of people.  It’s hypocrisy, which Jesus will address with chilling directness in chapter 23.  The real blasphemy is to remember and celebrate the Exodus, God’s dramatic and miraculous deliverance of the people from slavery… while leaving people around you today… in slavery.  It is to lift high the cross of Jesus in creed and hymn, and standing idly by while people are executed and lynched today.


Jesus’ response is that if they will not answer his question neither will he answer theirs.  However, he will tell them a very pointed parable about their own hypocrisy.

“A man had two sons;” he says.  “He went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’  He answered, ‘I will not'; but later he changed his mind and went.  The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘I go, sir’; but he did not go.  Which of the two did the will of his father?”

Even the priests and elders are not afraid to answer the question based on the little parable.  They don’t need to have a conference to decide how to respond to this one.  The answer is obvious.  They can see that the first son is the one who actually does the father’s will.  No one is more convinced that they are out there in the vineyard doing the father’s will than those clocking in overtime in their lavish Temple offices.

But then there is the problem of the other son, the one who is very good at placating his father with all the right words.  He promises to go work in the vineyard.  But never actually shows up in his work boots and overalls on grape-picking day.  He looks good, but he doesn’t accomplish what the father wants.  He always finds something more pressing, more important, than actually laboring in the vineyard.  Maybe he’s in marketing.  Maybe he’s the HR director.  Maybe he’s trading grape futures.  Maybe he’s writing the definitive textbook on viniculture.  But he’s not actually in the actual vineyard picking actual grapes, which is what the father actually asks him to actually do.

Seeing that they missed the point, Jesus lashes out at these elders and priests.  It was their response to John’s ministry that conclusively showed them to be like the second son.  For John is about repentance, like the first son who at first says no, but changes his mind and heart, and finally obeys the father.  And you can’t repent unless you realize you’re headed in the wrong direction, which is exactly what these leaders can never admit.  They have reached the pinnacle of their profession.  They are the epitome of success.  They were certainly not going to believe some lunatic eating bugs in the desert calling on them to repent.


Jesus flatly tells them that “the tax-collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you.”  “Tax collectors and prostitutes” was the way Jesus’ opponents derogatorily and dismissively referred to his disciples.  But Jesus embraces this label because these are precisely the people — those rejected and oppressed as sinners — who understand repentance and therefore find themselves welcome in the Kingdom of God.

The self-righteous, the judgmental, the condemnatory, the morally upright, the successful, the leaders, those propping up and serving the establishment, the ones who are about preserving and maintaining their own privilege… these folks don’t get it.  They may talk the talk, but they don’t walk the walk.  They don’t actually go and work in God’s vineyard.  

And what else is the work of God’s vineyard, the labor in God's Kingdom, but Jesus’ work of inclusion, welcome, non-violence, acceptance, forgiveness, healing, and love.  His is the work of compassion and empathy.  His is the blessing of spiritual poverty, gentleness, peacemaking, and purity of heart.  His is the work of reversal, in which the first are made last and the last are invited to the head of the line.

Doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with God.  Those words of the prophet Micah describe the work in God’s vineyard.  That means always standing or kneeling with the reviled and excluded, the condemned and marginalized, the lost and forsaken, the blind and the lame, the unpopular and powerless.  


Our Story. (Monmouth Presbytery)

Mark 1:14-15
September 26, 2017
Preached at the Presbytery of Monmouth


In 35 days we will celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, which of course is our tradition.  When I was younger I remember thinking that this would be a great milestone in the continued progress of Reformed Christianity.  Now, however, I wonder if it isn’t really more the closing of a chapter of church history.

The late observer of the religious scene, Phyllis Tickle, has famously speculated about the phenomenon of the “giant rummage sale” that comes over Western culture — the church in particular — every 500 years.  This pattern of a major paradigm shift every 5 centuries or so arguably goes back to the building of the Second Temple in Jerusalem and the pseudepigraphal prophecy that the Messiah would arrive 10 jubilees, that is, 500 years, thereafter.  Some scholars think this is what Jesus means when he announces that “the time is fulfilled.”

If Tickle is right, we are traversing one of these tectonic civilizational transitions right now.  She is not the only one suggesting this.  The term “paradigm shift” has been in our vocabulary at least since I was in seminary in the late 1970’s.  Navigating the treacherous waters of cataclysmic change has been the main theme of the church for my entire career.  Almost every day in this line of work I have had to deal with memory, nostalgia, and the stages of grief over a church and world that is simply not what we were used to, expect, or want.  Denial, anger, bargaining, blame… few churches have graduated to acceptance.  I have served in several churches where it seemed appropriate to open each session meeting with a litany beginning with the words, “It’s not 1956 anymore… and that is a good thing!”

Part of our frustration and bewilderment is that the usual way we were used to telling our story just doesn’t seem to work.  For 500 years the insights and narratives of the Reformation guided us.  “Salvation by grace alone.”  “Sola Scriptura.”  “The priesthood of all believers.”  These and other classic Reformation principles have been placed under constant scrutiny and are being robustly challenged.  The assertive and confident positivism about the Reformation faith, and our Calvinist/Presbyterian version of it, that was held through the first half of the 20th century, is all but gone now.  

For at least 40 years people have been leaving us in huge numbers.  And we have been floundering around trying to come up with a narrative that works for people today.  All we get for our efforts is a sharp rise in those who want nothing to do with us.  Especially among young people, more and more check off “none” when polled about their religious affiliation.  We’re even losing people who used to be active; we call them the “dones.”

We can continue to stew about this if we like.  But the fact is that the Reformation happened in response to historical conditions in Europe that just don’t apply anymore.  I wonder if our tradition isn’t so wedded to the issues of that time that, as the Modern Age fades into history, so will we.


And yet, another one of those Reformation mottos is “semper reformanda.”  The church is “always being reformed” by the Word of God.  The Word, Jesus Christ, is always present in the church and always drawing us out of our self-interested, self-righteous, self-aggrandizing dead-ends, and calling us into our true nature and mission.

In all this I am drawn again to Jesus’ words when he emerges from his vision quest in the wilderness after his profound mystical experience at his baptism.  The Lord says, “The time is fulfilled, the Kingdom of God has come near.  Repent, and believe the good news.”  In Mark’s gospel, these are the first words Jesus utters, and they summarize his whole mission.  Jesus begins his ministry with a statement about what he calls the Kingdom of God.  The Kingdom of God, God’s truth, ultimate Reality… has “come near,” the word for this in Greek means it is right here, available, accessible, present, ready, and waiting.  It is, as Augustine said, closer to us than we are to ourselves.  Later Jesus will say in Luke that it is “within” or “among” us.  He will repeatedly begin parables with the words, “The Kingdom of God is like….”  Explaining this Kingdom and its nearness is the most important thing Jesus is about.  

Jesus’ own story has to do with the proclamation of the nearness of the Kingdom of God.  If to be a disciple means to follow, to do what the Lord does, then he also intends for it to be our story as his disciples.  If we’re not communicating the living, available presence of the Kingdom of God, we’re not doing our job as disciples.  Our calling is to reflect and express the nearness of this kingdom, this realm or reign or or even, as some say today, “kindom” of God.  While profoundly spiritual, this has to be real, embodied, relational, political, and economic.  In our personal life, and in our communal gathering together, we have to be about witnessing to and enacting among us, by the power of the Spirit, this Kingdom of God, with, within, and among us.

If one Christian era is closing, it also means that another is opening.  Jesus says that no one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the Kingdom.  We find ourselves at an amazing kairos moment that only happens to a generation every 500 years!  

Every day we offer the same prayer to God: “Thy Kingdom come!”  Which means we have to tell our story, the story of the nearness and presence of God’s goodness, peace, justice, and love, here and now, with us, within us, among us.  This is urgent!  It is a matter of life and death!  If people don’t get this, if we do not live together according to the Kingdom Jesus announces and teaches, characterized by simplicity, humility, gratitude, forgiveness, generosity, peace, justice, and love, we’re finished.


Because the world is strangled by a powerful and contrary, and very bad, story.  We have for millennia been force-fed a self-serving, ego-centric, self-righteous narrative that rationalizes and justifies the power of cynical, destructive elites over us.  When I was at Standing Rock last November, I saw that story in the well-armed forces of violence, profit, and extraction arrayed against a group of Native Americans gathered in prayer.  We saw it in Ferguson.  We get that story right in our faces when in some parts of our country they erected in public spaces statues honoring terrorists, traitors, and slavers.  Some have an issue with that now.  Even this past weekend, we see how controversial it is not to stand for that story, but to kneel for another.

In a world of propaganda, fake news, marketing spiels, shameless spin, and big lies, nothing is more imperative than that people hear our story, the old, old story, as one hymn tells it, of Jesus and his love.  Which is the truth.  It is the story of the nearness of God’s Kingdom, a place of joy and delight, characterized by redistribution, reparations, and restitution, the very reversals that Jesus proclaims throughout his career, beginning even before he is born in his mother’s magnificent hymn in Luke 1.

If the Reformation meant anything, it meant getting back to the basics of the faith.  And it doesn’t get more basic than these words of the Lord as he commences his work.  
  • What would it mean to take Jesus seriously here?  
  • What would it mean to focus again on Jesus’ story that God and God’s Kingdom are very near, that God comes into the world, and into our hearts, to save, liberate, redeem, heal, and bless?  
  • What would it mean if everything we did as disciples and gospel communities was engineered to reflect and express the possibility of finding in ourselves and in the whole creation the emancipating love of the One who creates, redeems, and sustains everything?  
  • What would it mean to live out the truth that in God’s Kingdom all are one, there are no divisions or inequalities, no Jews or Greeks, no slave or free, not even male and female, as Paul says?  
  • What would it mean to remember that the Lord’s Table represents God’s stupendous abundance and generosity?  
  • What would it mean to deliberately lift up and empower the lowly, marginalized, disenfranchised, hungry, excluded, and losers, beginning in our own gospel communities?  
  • What would it mean for Christ’s church to follow his example of self-emptying, and join those with nothing?
  • What would it mean to have our churches become intentional communities of discipleship and contemplation? 
The Kingdom of God is near: it is within us, it is among us, and it extends into all the world.  The whole creation is this Kingdom, this real world of shalom and goodness.  To see and inhabit this, all we have to do — and I mean all we have to do — is repent, which is to change how we think and see, and step into this reality in open and whole-hearted trust in this truth.  Gospel communities are communities of repentance, where we help each other turn from the false and lethal story of exploitation, death, and extinction, to the true story of life in God.

That’s our job for the next 500 years: starting… now!


Saturday, September 23, 2017

It Doesn't Matter When You Come to the Party.

Matthew 20:1-16
September 24, 2017


Sometime in the 90’s Somerset County wanted to widen and add sidewalks to the main road through our town.  So they held hearings, some of which I attended.  By the way, if you ever want confirmation of the total depravity of human beings try attending meetings of your local planning board.  Talking about property brings out the worst in people.

Anyway, it quickly became apparent that many in the meeting felt that the longer you lived in Martinsville the greater say you should have in decisions like this.  People (mostly old white men) would preface their remarks by proclaiming, “I’ve lived in this town for over 40 years!” as if that held some special weight.  The same men would castigate others for even having an opinion if they only lived here for a shorter amount of time.  If you were a newcomer, forget it.  There seems to be this automatic assumption that seniority and longevity has some kind of intrinsic authority.

I get that.  I mean, on some level, experience and familiarity should count for something.  The word “presbyterian” literally means that the “elders,” that is, those whose been around the longest, should rule.  But that rule is supposed to be according to God’s will, not for your own personal benefit or satisfaction.  

I’ve been in church meetings where I was informed that the fact that someone’s grandparents sat for decades in a certain pew automatically precluded any thought of sanctuary remodeling.  I have actually heard church members say that a church should not get air conditioning in the sanctuary because, “I’ve been in this church for 63 years and we never had air-conditioning before!”  Why would we introduce such a lavish and extravagant, not to say hedonistic, convenience just for some new people?

This kind of thinking is pervasive today, even to the point of people claiming that recent immigrants are somehow not entitled to certain government benefits, but that citizens whose families came here a few years earlier should be able to take the same benefits for granted.  We were all once newcomers.  If we take this logic to its conclusion we would be letting Native Americans resolve all real estate issues… but of course, that’s not going to happen.  Because this argument from longevity and seniority is really just an excuse for one established class to maintain their power.

Then there’s the equally self-serving argument that if we reward people who don’t show up until the last minute we are only giving them an incentive to live raucous, sinful lives in the meantime.  If they know they can always scoot in under the wire with a deathbed confession, there is no reason for them to change their bad behavior any sooner.  Those who struggled to live upright, moral, religious lives for many years are somehow being cheated if these upstarts get let in.  Why should they get the same eternal reward as those who worked for years to be righteous?

It turns out that those who are part of a privileged establishment of elite insiders howl like they are being horribly oppressed when some other group merely asks for equality.  We think we’ve been working hard to earn a place at the table, and want to exclude or at least regulate those who didn’t work as hard or as long as we like to think we have.    


Jesus sees this attitude in the way the establishment of his time did not want to have to admit the riffraff, sinners, tax collectors, lepers, demoniacs, epileptics, prostitutes, and other losers who associate with him.  This petulant grumpiness extended into the time of the early church, and eventually caused the split between the two religions that emerged in the first century: Rabbinic Judaism and Christianity.  It was all about the standards and requirements of receiving new people into the faith.

The Lord rejects this kind of thinking out of hand, as seen in this parable.  The insiders betray a sinful, violent, self-serving reasoning that makes Jesus roll his eyes in frustration.  Because what it reveals about the establishment and the leaders is a basic misunderstanding about the Kingdom of Heaven.  They seem to think of it as a place demanding joyless discipline, hard work, stiff competition, and constant ingratiation of yourself to the boss.  If you do all that you might make it in, if you don’t screw up and if you have a little luck.  They saw the Kingdom of Heaven as their reward after a life of mindless self-inflicted pain and drudgery.  And they didn’t want to let anyone in who hadn’t subjected themselves to the same suffering.

If all you know is your ego-self, your old self, what Paul calls “the flesh,” then this is indeed what it looks like.  It looks like the point is to pay by suffering now to earn the reward at the end.  How many Christians, hearing Jesus talk about taking up your cross and losing your life, assume it has to mean he wants us to punish ourselves mercilessly to be worthy of acceptance into the Kingdom of Heaven after they die?  Worse, how many Christians imposed suffering on others, telling them that this was the way to earn God’s love, while profiting from their suffering?

This breaks Jesus’ heart.  He sees the Kingdom of Heaven in a completely different way.  For Jesus the Kingdom of Heaven is a magnificent banquet where everyone is happy, liberated, and fed, the admission to which is absolutely free, and which starts now in the life of the gospel communities he is founding.  The point of releasing your old, small, sinful, broken, and false self is not self-hatred.  It is not a punitive act of self-flagellation.  

Rather, Jesus insists that the letting go of our ego-self is what allows our true Self, the Image of God within us, our essence, the true humanity we share with Jesus, to emerge.  This is happens not just after we die; and not just at the end of time when Jesus returns; but it begins now.  It begins in the life of repentance, of gaining a new way of thinking and acting, in community together.


So it doesn’t matter when you come to the party!  Everyone is welcomed when they do come.  Knowing the joy of the banquet, how can we possibly resent those who stayed crippled in their addictions and pain for longer than they had to?  

If you’re in a 12-step group like AA I don’t imagine that you have this anger toward people who remained mired in corrosive, self-destructive behavior for longer than others.  Many only show up at all after they hit bottom.  At most there might be a feeling of grief and sorrow over those who waited too long to come in.  They wasted years of their lives, but thank God they finally got to a meeting!  Thank God they finally got to a place of healing and acceptance!  

Indeed, if we feel resentful about those who continued to devote years of their life to profligate debauchery before finally coming to the gospel community, that is a sure indication that we do not ourselves know the Kingdom at all.  If we’re envious of people in the process of ruining their lives and the world, then we really don’t get what the Kingdom of Heaven is about.  And we are most certainly not in it, but in some counterfeit, fake version that just calls itself the church, but really knows Jesus not at all. 

Because to work in this vineyard, the vineyard of the living God of love, is a labor of love, joy, and peace.  There is nothing not to like!  It is the work of delight and wonder.  It is the labor of freedom, fulfillment, and ecstasy.  God’s vineyard is the kind of place where if you have been working in it since 7:30 in the morning you still have nothing but happiness and welcome for someone showing up at 4:30, and you are completely satisfied and delighted that they get the same reward as you.  Because just to work in this garden is a reward in itself.  Which is to say, just to be a part of the community of disciples, the church, sharing in God’s life, represented in God’s body and blood, is more than enough. 

For the Kingdom of Heaven is a revelation of God’s infinite abundance and generosity.  It is not the rare commodity we try to turn it into so we can stick a high price on it and restrict access to it.  It is emphatically not dependent on our work or our time.  And it is even less a place of drudgery and exhaustion, pain and penitence.  Working in the garden of God is itself a privilege and pleasure.

A vineyard is often a metaphor in the Bible for Israel or even the whole creation.  So on one level, Jesus is talking about our life together in the community of disciples in which we practice the values of healing and blessing and acceptance and forgiveness that Jesus embodies and teaches.  The church is sort of an outpost of God’s Kingdom in alien territory where we live by Jesus’ rules of love, even while all around us different rules apply.

At the same time, the values and practices of Jesus and the Kingdom of Heaven are supposed to shine and flow outward into our larger neighborhoods and towns and regions.  We are to witness to others concerning this abundance of God.  God has given us enough for all if we get the distribution right.  That goes for things we need like food, water, shelter, and health care.  It also goes for love, peace, joy, and forgiveness.


Jesus’ concluding message, that the last will be first and the first will be last, is a restatement of his theme of reversal.  He has come to turn the world upside down.  In a sense the Kingdom of Heaven is a kind of “oppositeland,” where the haves become have-nots, and the have-nots become haves.  Those who are privileged and powerful in the old order, must lose everything to participate in God’s realm.  Those with nothing in the old order, experience the reign of God as a veritable flood of benefits.

Jesus is about redistribution.  He is about reparations.  He is about reversal.  How else do you understand, “So the last will be first, and the first will be last”?  And if we are angry and resentful about that, then we have treated our work in the vineyard, not like a joy and a privilege to participate in God’s world, but like some limited commodity we worked hard to acquire to which no one else should imagine they have access.  And that means we are very far from the Kingdom of Heaven, and very far from Jesus.

If we have an ounce of sympathy for those who worked all day, we have missed the point of whose vineyard it is and what a delight it is to work in it.  To begrudge the generosity of God is to not know God at all.

The point is to love the Lord and to love people so much that not only are you overjoyed that newcomers get the same pay as you, but that you are willing to donate your pay to them as well.  If we really knew the transcendent joy of the Kingdom of Heaven, if we really knew the abundance and beauty of this vineyard and how healing and fulfilling it is to work in it, we wouldn’t even care about the pay.  We would work in it for free.  We would in fact sell all we have for the privilege.


Saturday, September 2, 2017

Inevitable... AND Necessary.

Matthew 16:21-28
September 3, 2017


Last week we heard Peter make his famous confession that Jesus is “the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”  Christian faith will be founded upon this confession.  But left to our own understanding of what that means, we invariably miss and distort the point.  We fall back on our own ego-centric, self-serving ways of understanding who God is and what it means to be a “Messiah.”  And we ignorantly assume that what Jesus means is exactly the kind of power, wealth, and popularity that Jesus himself rejects back in chapter 4 when Satan offers them to him.

Even Peter does this.  Which means that Jesus has to unpack what it really means to be “the Messiah, the Son of the living God”.  What it doesn’t mean is that Jesus would take political power for himself in a successful violent revolution in Jerusalem.  Instead, Jesus knows what he’s really in for when he gets to Jerusalem: he tells his disciples that he will “undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.”

Jesus knows that his ministry is so profoundly counter-cultural and so threatening to the religious and political authorities, that they will not allow it to continue.  In order to preserve their power and prevent people from following him and organizing in his Name they will have no choice but to engineer his death.  It is inevitable.  

The Lord knows that there is nothing more offensive and dangerous to powerful leaders than people who are awake and gathering together in support of one another.  Nothing is more alarming to them than that people start living according to Jesus’ teachings of sharing, forgiveness, welcoming, healing, and non-violence.  Because if people start living that way, if they start following Jesus, the power of the rulers — which is maintained by fomenting fear, anger, and hatred between people — is over.

Human leaders will do everything they can to prevent this from happening.  Where Jesus teaches welcoming and acceptance, they said that those disgusting, lazy Gentiles — which is to say, anyone different — should be feared and excluded.  Where Jesus teaches non-violence, they said a huge Roman military is necessary to protect from terrorists.  Where Jesus enacted an economics of sharing together in God’s abundance, the rulers said that the only system that works is when rich people continue to get richer.  Where Jesus includes and elevates women, they said that women should stay subservient and powerless.  Where Jesus embodies liberation and forgiveness, they insisted that slavery, torture, and mass incarceration were necessary to deter crime.  Where Jesus teaches that the Law is about love, they made it about control and the preservation of their own power.  

Jesus also knows that human rulers have always rid themselves of people like him by means of the legalized murder of the death penalty.  Many of the prophets end up as enemies of the elite, and so will he.


Hearing Jesus’ prediction of his own suffering and death, Peter objected.  He even rebuked Jesus!  Maybe he thought Jesus was being cynical and negative about his prospects, and it was Peter’s job to build him back up into a more positive attitude.  Maybe he thought he would be Jesus’ cheerleader or self-esteem coach.  In any case, Jesus snarls back at him that he is no less than Satan.  “You are a stumbling block to me;” he says, “for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” 

In other words, Peter saw things from the perspective of his ego and conventional thinking.  He was thinking like everyone else.  He was thinking according to the standards of fallen humanity.  And that made him a stumbling block.  He was getting in Jesus’ way.  He was obstructing Jesus’ mission.  It becomes clear that he didn’t understand his own confession of faith, which he made just a few verses earlier.  

Peter did not understand that not only is Jesus’ death inevitable given what he is doing, it is also necessary.  As Jesus says elsewhere, “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”  Jesus here predicts that he will die… and be raised on the third day.  Peter apparently neither heard nor understood this last clause about being raised.  But it is of course the key to everything.

There is a famous quote about revolutionary movements: “first they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.”  Jesus would amend that saying adding the words “then you die” before “then you win.”  Because the winning for Jesus comes only after death.  Otherwise it is not a real transformation or change, just a new adaptation and adjustment in the old power arrangement.  Which is what most revolutions are.  For all their lofty propaganda, they simply catapult a different group of self-important, self-serving leaders up into the palace.  They may have a slightly different narrative justifying their rule, but because they have done no spiritual work, which is to say, they haven’t died, the effect on the ground is largely the same.  As Pete Townsend once sang, “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.”  

Only the finality of death closes the book on the previous identity sufficiently enough that the new thing that emerges is really different, higher, and better.

But, you know, even this has been self-servingly misconstrued by the powers-that-be to push redemption, liberation, healing, freedom, forgiveness, and joy way ahead into the afterlife or even to the end of time.  Such an approach reduces Christian faith to at best a matter of spiritual procrastination where instead of embracing God’s Kingdom now we wait patiently biding our time for the sweet by-and-by.  Indeed, many people, generation after generation, have accepted this watered-down, domesticated, neutered, vapid as what Christian faith is.


That’s because we are deliberately misled about what death really is.  Our egos are terrified of death because they think it is utter annihilation and obliteration.  But if Jesus’ analogy of the grain of wheat is correct, then that’s not what death is at all.  Death is a transformation into a new kind of life.  here is even some continuity between the seed and the plant, the acorn and the oak tree, say.  They have the same dna.  The oak-tree is simply the final form of the acorn.  It is the acorn’s destiny.  But in order to get there the acorn-self has to die so the oak-tree-self can sprout, emerge, and grow.

I have mentioned before the famous quote from The Cost of Discipleship by Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  “When Christ calls someone he bids them come and die.”  It is not what we want to hear any more than it is what Peter wants to hear.  Yet it is the core of discipleship.  There is a sense in which in order to be faithful to Jesus we have to embrace and even love our own death.

To some this makes Christianity seem incredibly depressing and morbid.  But when Bonhoeffer hears Jesus say, “Come and die,” it is not an invitation to slit our wrists or jump off the Driscoll Bridge.  Real discipleship is about being called by Jesus to “come and die…” so that in the process God’s Kingdom may emerge in us here and now.  Real discipleship is about letting go of our acorn-self, our grain-of-wheat self, so that our new, amazing, apparently impossible self, our oak-tree-self, which was always our real Self and true destiny, can emerge.  

What has to die is our old self, the self that finds its meaning and purpose in wealth, power, and popularity; the self that expresses its existence in what it can consume, own, control, keep, and demand; the self that is primarily motivated by fear, shame, and anger; the little ego-self driven by our personality, that is limited in vision by ignorance, crippled by desires, deaf to the voices of others, and defiled by sin.  In other words, it is maimed by all the conditions Jesus explicitly heals in his ministry, when people come to him with bodies broken by them.

Here Jesus intentionally connects his death with the death he is requiring from his disciples.  He goes right from a prediction of his own execution to the demand that his disciples also “deny themselves and take up their cross and… lose their life for [his] sake.”  He clearly does not want anyone to come away with the wrong idea, as if he is dying so we don’t have to.  What is really going on is that he is dying to show us the pathway to resurrection.  He is dying so we can too, and emerge with him in new life.  That’s the whole point.  That’s why the initiation ritual for entry into the Christian faith is… Baptism: a symbolic dying with Christ and rising again with him.  It is the pattern of growth into resurrection life


So, yes, Christianity is focused on “life after death.”  But that life after death begins to happen now, in the giving up of our old, ego-centric, selfish existence in practices of repentance and discipleship.  Jesus even warns us to get busy with this work now, because if the Son of Man comes in his Kingdom before we taste this death, that is, before we know who we truly are, it could be too late.  We will not recognize him because we will still be trapped in our old, shallow, fearful identity.  The oak-tree will appear and we will not be able to imagine that it has anything to do with us acorns.  In fact it will scare the living daylights out of us.

Paul writes that “if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.”  The point is resurrection.  The goal and destiny of human life is…. life!  With that as our future, it almost doesn’t matter what we have to go through to get there.  Our old self only sees the death part.  It can’t imagine anything on the other side of it.  The Christian life is about cultivating a better and truer imagination, convincing ourselves that, though we may be acorns today, will be oak-trees.  And the Christian life is about losing, releasing, giving up, letting go of our acorn-selves, which die… so that the new Self, Christ-in-us, the Image of God in which we are created, emerges into its fullness and glory.

From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, ‘God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.’ But he turned and said to Peter, ‘Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling-block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’

 Then Jesus told his disciples, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?

 ‘For the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay everyone for what has been done. Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.’