Sunday, September 28, 2008

They’ll Know.

Matthew 21: 28-46
Philippians 2: 1-13

When Jesus entered Jerusalem on the colt of a donkey, the first thing he did was cleanse the temple of the unethical moneychangers. Then, he curses the fig tree, and his authority is questioned by the Pharisees. There are also a large number of parables that Jesus teaches, and Matthew places our two stories today in that week in Jerusalem.

It’s important to know the context, because Jesus is in the midst of illustrating why God is so displeased with the way things are going religiously in Jerusalem. It’s a contrast—the Pharisees and the Scribes act that way, and in the Kingdom of God, the proper way to act is this way. These two stories are given to us by Jesus as part of that teaching.

Let’s talk about the first story. There are two sons. Their father asks both of them to go work in the vineyard. They both do the opposite of what they say. The first says no, but then goes, after he thinks about it. The second says yes, but never seems to get there. And he asks, which is the one who did what he was supposed to? The answer, of course, is the second.

This story answers the question of why those who are the outcast and the sinners of the world seemed to be getting preferential treatment from Jesus and his disciples. Many of us will say to God that we will do what he wants, but then we seem to get distracted with other things. The ones who do the will of God can even include those who outwardly reject God, but show his love through their actions anyway. They are closer to the kingdom than the first.

The second story is the story of the wicked tenants. There’s an absentee owner who leaves a vineyard in the management of some tenants. The tenants get an overdeveloped sense of ownership and kill the slaves the owner sends to collect the proceeds from the harvest. He sends more, they kill them, too. He sends his son, and they, not having the tightest grip on reality, kill him too, so they can inherit his wealth. Jesus asks what happens to them? The people respond that the tenants should be killed for misusing the owners land and killing his people, and his son. The tenants should then be replaced by new ones who understand their role, and seek the owners’ will.

This is actually a fascinating story for Jesus to be telling, because the tenants are the scribes and Pharisees, the slaves sent to “collect” are the prophets of God, and the son is Jesus himself. And the tenants kill everyone. They no longer, according to Jesus, deserve the right to manage the Kingdom of God, because they have taken their tenancy and grown it in their minds into ownership, and used the vineyard wrong.

There are lessons for us here, people who can be described, and indeed describe ourselves as workers in the vineyard. We claim that we are the people of God. We are his workers. How do we avoid the fate the the original tenants of the vineyard deserve? How do we keep from killing the ones sent by the owner?
If we accept that we are not the masters of our own fates, that when we became Christian we ceased to accept the illusion of power over our lives, then what is left for us is to seek the will of God, whom we at some point trusted, otherwise we wouldn’t be here this morning.

Here is what Jesus tells us—when we realize that we have gone against the will of God, we change direction. Even when we say no, we can turn around and say yes. From the parable of the workers in the vineyard, we know that we can do that at any point and we will receive the normal full daily wage. Grace is available to those who say no and then choose to go work.

We are merely tenants on someone else’s farm. We work for someone else. It’s best if we don’t abuse those who are sent to help us.

Paul says it better than I can—“be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish 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.
And here’s the kicker: Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.

In other words, imitate Christ.

Of course this doesn’t mean that you should grow a beard, wear a robe and sandals, and make the local government so mad that they want to crucify you.

Rather, this means that, no matter how you dress, or the length of your hair, you have it within you to act as Jesus would have acted. And we’re talking more than being nice. To borrow and slightly alter a phrase from CS Lewis, Jesus was not nice, but he was good.

It’s to act as if the person you meet is a child of God, and when disagreements happen, to act honorably and with integrity, acknowledging the humanity of the other person. Disagreements are not the same as attacks on a person’s character.

It’s deeper than WWJD. It’s more complex than a bumper sticker. It is seeking, as the Philippians passage continues, to empty ourselves, taking the form of a servant. It means humbling ourselves and becoming obedient. And sometimes, all the way to the danger of losing your life. Let’s be clear here—being a true Christian is not having a death wish. Most of us here will never be called into a situation where our lives are required of us. But to stand up for God and for his people, to stand between his people, the poor, the sick, the oppressed, to speak up to the powers of this world can sometimes put you into situations that are a little dicey.

When our integrity comes from God, and not ourselves, they’ll know we’re Christians by our love. When we act from thinking of ourselves merely as a servant of God and not out of some cultural notion of solitary self-reliance, they’ll know we are Christians by our love. When we have emptied ourselves, and act not out of ego or stubbornness but out of love of God and the need to serve Him, they’ll know we are Christians by our love.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

John Wayne

Matthew 20: 1-21
Phillipians 1: 21-26

John Wayne was once the greatest star in American Movies. He was one of the greatest action heroes, starring in western and war movies, and rarely if ever deviating into romance and comedies. He was a star along the lines of Bruce Willis or Chuck Norris, though Norris has never really broken into the movies. His reputation for toughness, however, does parallel John Wayne's. There really is no comparison, because so many actors now cross genres, and the western, John Wayne's bread and butter, has evolved beyond what it was when he was making them.

He died in 1979, and there are two things I remember about that. First, it came out that John Wayne was his acting name, or "stage" name, and his real name was Marion Morrison. I was 11, and it was the first time I'd ever heard of man named Marion. It seemed weird against his image of the tough guy.

Second, I remember that when he was baptized as was dying. The biography says he was a baptized Christian for about two days. Now, I was about 15 years from becoming a Christian, myself, so really didn't have a dog in that hunt, but it seemed to me to me to not be fair play, that someone could live whatever kind of life they wanted, and then just before they die, they can become a Christian and all of their sins are forgiven. That just didn’t seem fair.

Today's Matthew passage causes a lot of stress for a lot of people, because it says that deathbed baptisms are perfectly fine, because grace is freely given. God is the one who gives the wages for us all, and he has chosen to give not on merit, not based on a lifetime of good works kept a record of in a little book somewhere, but to everyone. And that doesn't seem fair to those who have lived good, stable, quiet lives. Here's an extreme example--How does someone who is at the church every time it is open, doesn't smoke, doesn't drink, doesn't cuss, gives to charity and to support the church, serves of committees and sings in the choir, get the same heavenly wage as the person who comes into the church only for weddings and funerals, cheats on their taxes, kicks dogs, wears fur, has overdue library books, never drives the speed limit and doesn’t wear a helmet when riding their custom glass-pack muffler Harley?

Well, it's not our concern, our responsibility. As Jesus ends his parable, the vineyard owner is allowed to do what he wants with what is his, and we are jealous because he is generous. God's grace is available to all, and our displeasure that as his people we must take his grace to places we aren't comfortable with, to people with whom we disagree, is irrelevant.
Paul writes in Philippians that he isn't sure whether he wants more to die and to be with Christ, or to stay on earth and make the message of the Good News available to the world. Personally, he'd love to go he says, but he knows that that may not be God's plan. He's come early to the vineyard, he's worked pretty hard, but he knows that he's got no say in how the wages are paid, and he also knows that it's his job to go get more workers all the time, because the owner wants them. Even the ones who come to the vineyard late are OK with him, because his work isn't judging by merit, or by the clock. His job is getting workers. The better he does this, the more he is working out God's plan. The judging bit is, to use a recent phrase from the presidential campaign, "above his pay grade". He takes enjoyment in being with the people he has led to Christ, hearing their stories of growth and trials along the Christian way, but deep in his heart of hearts, he tells us that He'd rather be in heaven, with Christ.

So, of course, the question is; "Why should we take showers, get dressed, and show up here, on Sunday mornings, sing songs and listen to some guy talk? Why can't I stay home, and watch Howie, Terry and Deion, and then when I am getting ready to die, have the pulpit guy come and baptize me? What is this need I have to be here? If it works for John Wayne, why can't it work for me?"

Well, frankly, Grace is such that you certainly can make that choice. But I would suggest that the reason why you are here, the reason why you come back, week after week, is to do more than satisfy guilt. There's something here that attracts you, that fills you up, way deep down inside, in a way that no 10 hours of football on TV can. I think it is that there is a camaraderie among vineyard workers. Paul felt it, which is why he was torn between dying with Christ and living and being fruitful for Christ. We gather to praise God, and to celebrate our living with him. We gather to thank god for the work that we have been called to do, to make God's grace available to others, and to get more people on the vineyard payroll. It's almost a recruiting tool; you don’t have to have gotten in at the beginning, but at the end you'll get the same wage I'll get. And you get to hang out with some pretty good people. People who aren't perfect, but have the need to get better.

It turns out that John Wayne wasn't new to Christianity--he was a member of some Catholic organizations for a long time before he died. His journey wasn't about baptism and new birth and growth. He probably would not have used the terms born again for that event. But his story is not one that highlights the unfairness of Jesus' teachings; a judgment of unfairness is something we generate, and we've got no right to do so. Instead, we celebrate that there is God that gives grace so freely that everyone has a chance. Everyone, no matter what the path is. The vineyard is always open, the payroll is always available.

Thanks be to God.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Love Does no Wrong

Romans 13: 8-14
Matthew 18: 15-20

A couple of weeks ago, I was in Philadelphia with Josiah and two German teenagers. We were walking back to our car, and came across one of those very common features of urban life, the construction site. This is one of those small tunnel like things where you walk under some scaffolding, and the passage is narrow, so sometimes you have to have just two lanes of walking traffic. There were these three girls, talking and texting and popping gum, all at once, which is a great talent.

What was interesting was that they were walking very slowly, perfectly happy with their pace, because ahead of them in the narrow passage was a very elderly woman with a walker, being accompanied by a nurse. As soon as they got to the passages’ end, they politely walked around the older adults, but while they were in the passage, in a sense ”trapped” by the flow of traffic, the younger girls slowed down so as not to make the others feel rushed.

Next time you are in a bookstore, take a look at the section having to do with etiquette. You’ll find there to be more books than you thought! There will be books of weddings—how to set the table properly and who goes next to who in the receiving line, and how quickly it is proper to send out thank you notes. There will be books for businesspeople—when you are in Japan, this is how you hand someone your business card, this is how you bring up a topic of conversation.

Many many books. Some things we learn, though, don’t come from books. Things like “if you don’t have anything nice to say, then don’t say anything”.
“Don’t be impatient around people who move slowly.”
Calling people “sir” or “ma’am.”
Calling before you go visit someone.

We learn how to act around people from parents and elders. The books are for more complex social interactions, the simple ways of how to treat people come from experience and how we’re brought up. It’s how people know we’re decent people.

How do people know we’re Christian? Yes, there is the whole getting up on Sunday morning and all that, and the grace before meals, and the praying. But there is a whole sense that Christians, if they are truly led by the spirit, are to be somehow “nice”. What the Scripture passages today tell us is that there are ways to act to address issues between people, ways that Jesus has actually taught. The Matthew passage is in red letters in some Bibles.

What you can distill from these passages is that if you have a problem with someone, the proper, Christian way to act is to address it to the person directly in private. No public embarrassment. No end-arounds, so that everyone knows you have an issue except the person you have the issue with. Straight ahead, in private, with love. Or at least respect.

What this does, and this is the underlying ethic, is acknowledge the Christ within the other person. My old campus minister used to greet friends with the statement; “may the Christ within me greet the Christ within you.” It was her way of saying that God has created each of us, and even though you may look, think, or act differently than I do, you are still created by God, in the image of God. We are not called to deny each others’ potential humanity, but to assume it. If we treat each person we meet as a child of God, the spirit of God will carry us through social mistakes, and give everyone we meet dignity.

Those girls walking so slowly behind the elderly woman an her nurse were giving her dignity. They acknowledged her presence, and where impatience would have been a relationship complicator, their patience was a relationship builder.

What Jesus and Paul combine to teach us here is that Christians are called to be relationship builders. We are called to build dignity to every person we meet.

People may see that we claim to be Christian by the cross necklace around our necks, or our bumper stickers, or by the bible we carry. But they’ll know we are Christians by our love. By our respect for and curiosity about others; by our interest in others. Not for evangelism purposes, so as to claim another person on our personal score sheets, but instead to be genuinely interested in the people around us. Paul writes that “love does no wrong”. If we are the people of a God of love, then we are to do no wrong, either. John Wesley writes in his basic principles that Christians should “do no harm,” meaning that as best as we can, we should not contribute to the degradation of others. It’s more than being nice. It is giving all humans dignity. It is eliminating cruelty from one’s spirit. How does this look in modern life? Well, we can acknowledge that people have different ideas about politics, and respect them as equal to our own. It means you should disagree without making the other person look like an idiot. It means seeking to make people comfortable, sometimes by acknowledging their infirmities, sometimes by ignoring them. It means that because every person you meet has the spark of God within them, they must be greeted as people as special as yourself, even if they have a different skin color or speak a different language.

There’s another place in Matthew that says that when we have fed the hungry, clothed the naked, visited those in prison and who are sick, then we have done the same to Jesus himself. If we live, and act in the world with the understanding that every person we meet might be Jesus, or an angel we are unaware of, like another Bible passage says, then it will certainly be true that we will be known for our love. And as Christians, what could be better