Sunday, October 22, 2017

It's a Trap!

Sermon for October 22, 2017

Proper 24A – RCL – Track 1 

The Pharisees went and plotted to entrap Jesus in what he said. So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” They answered, “The emperors.” Then he said to them, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.

When I read the Gospel for today I had multiple reactions that ranged from great!  This is a gift to a preacher during this time that our church is focusing on stewardship and the theological practice of giving from our time, talent and treasures to the church. To dread!  What can I do with this text that will break it open anew.  If not for you all then for me.  One of the joys I have in preaching is that I frequently gain new insights or see new facets of the lessons as I approach them with the intent of using them for preaching.  And I always hope that the Holy Spirit will enrich the texts for all of us. 

So what is going on in this text?  The Herodians – think of them as the secular group – and the Pharisees – the religious group -  have created an unlikely alliance to rid them of this meddlesome and tiresome itinerate rabbi, preacher, and healer.  Jesus is making waves and they want him gone. 

This lesson takes place during what we now call Holy Week – that period of time between Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem and his crucifixion.  So the alliance decide to set a clever trap that will either make Jesus loose his followers or get him in trouble with the Roman authorities.  If he upholds the unpopular poll tax that funds the Roman occupation he will certainly loose his street cred and the alliance will see Jesus’ followers melt away effectively silencing him.  Or if he speaks against the unpopular tax Jesus will be accused of inciting revolution and be in trouble with the authorities – which will likely get him arrested and crucified since the Roman’s did not have much patience with potential insurrection.

It is a no win situation.  It is a trap.  How often do we run into such traps?  How often do we worship an idol of absolutism?  I certainly read it in the papers and in social media – from both sides of the aisle.  If a politician is not adhering to the various litmus tests – and we can all name a whole slew of them from all sides be it tax cuts and cuts to social safety net programs or universal health care and increasing funding for social services.

I am not without political opinion so the temptation would be to tell you that my way is God’s way.  After all I have the collar and had a bishop and a whole bunch of other priests lay hands on me.  But I am willing to admit that there are problems with all sides of these debates and that no political stance is really perfect.

Jesus’ response is clever.  A response that managed to condemn both sides – because the observant Pharisee was quick to bring out a coin that not only bore the image of the emperor but also the inscription proclaiming the emperor as God – and thus on a strict reading breaking a couple of commandments about worshiping idols.  And for the secularists not endorsing an unpopular tax but in a reading the could actually be read as a condemnation of their secularism too.

One could also read Jesus response to his accusers as a perfect separation of church and state comment.  Give to the state that which belongs to the state and give to God that which belongs to God.  But the problem with that is we say that all things have been given to us from God and all things belong to God.

All things belong to God and that includes us.  Jesus has spent the last several chapters of Matthew trying to tell the people about God using parables.  Parables that purport to tell us what the kingdom of God is like.  Parables that never seem to end the way we think they should – because how can the kingdom of God be like the vineyard owner?  Unless Jesus is telling us that we are tending to God’s kingdom and then we can hear how we dash the God’s dream of mercy by our actions.

If Jesus is telling us to give to God the things that are God’s it means that we need to give ourselves to God because we are of God.  As we can read in Genesis we are created in God’s image.  Which means that we need to look at all of our actions as flowing from our god-likeness.  And that entails looking at both our actions in church and in the public square through a lens of striving for mercy and justice not striving for judgment and condemnation.

In the heated rhetoric all around us it is all too easy to descend into judgment.  It is easy to disparage those who disagree with us.  It is easy to put people into bins with labels of our own making.  Left, right, center.  Gay, Lesbian, bisexual, Transgendered, Straight. Homeless, addict, slacker.  We want to categorize everything and everyone as good or bad. But what if, just what if, we stopped for a moment and asked ourselves how does being created in the image of the creator influence our actions?

I have come to hate the hashtag (which I think predates hashtags) of WWJD – what would Jesus do? I hate it not for the sentiment but because it seems that some who espouse such hashtags then want to tell me what Jesus would do.  And I am afraid that in many cases I can’t see those actions squaring with the gospels.  Instead I sometimes see those actions squaring with a reading of the parable from last Sunday where we play God and throw the one with the wrong clothes into that place where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. 

So how do we give to God our whole selves.  I think Jesus gave us a big clue back in Matthew chapter 9 when Jesus said … “go and learn what this means: 'I desire mercy, not sacrifice.'” And since that Chapter Jesus has been telling his disciples, the crowds- and us -  just what it means to desire mercy.  Jesus has been telling how God works on a different economy then us.  That God will pay the workers a living wage no matter how long they work.  That God’s economy is like the crazy farmer that spreads seed everywhere instead of only on the good ground.  That God’s economy is upside down from what we think much of the time because we, as a general rule, seem to be a people that require judgment.

Giving to God what is God’s requires us to look and act through a different lens.  To seek mercy.  To see the people around us as also being created in God’s image.  And then to treat them that way.  Not as labels but as beloved children of God.  If we are made in the image of the creator then we need to extend our vision outward as well as inward.  It means that when we look at our environment we need to take actions as a creator and not as a destructor of the environment. 

When we see ourselves and others in the image of God then perhaps we will truly work to bring God’s dream of mercy and love to our hurting earth.  If we give our whole selves perhaps we can help find ways to provide to those who much of society has discarded.

It is not a question of choosing God’s way or man’s way.  It is not a question of separating our actions into secular actions and sacred actions.  Because all of our actions are accountable to our God.  All of our actions are really sacred in nature – even when we act in the public square.

Karolyn Lewis from Luther seminary said, “… at the heart of Jesus’ response to those who would test his loyalties is a rather simple but subversive sermon -- God’s sovereignty is not a choice but a truth. It is not a question of loyalty, but a statement of reality.”[1]

As we approach the end of our church year – and as we head at what seems like breakneck speed to me into the new calendar year we need to ask ourselves how do we give back to God.  How do we feed the hungry, clothe the naked and visit those is prison?  How do we as a church and as individuals build up and value those who society would ignore or worse would, like last week’s parable, bind hand and foot and relegate to that place where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.

There are no easy answers.  But one way is to give our time talent and treasures to those things that desire mercy.  To support institutions like St. Paul’s that strives to be a haven of peace and comfort to those who have no peace or comfort.  (and I bet some of you were just waiting to see when the stewardship part of the sermon would happen – after all it is a perfect setup.) 

All you have to do is hang around this corner of 15th and J streets to see both the need and the incredible treasure that passes by everyday.  And I pray that this place will continue to strive and desire mercy and not sacrifice.  I pray that we will continue to strive to see all of God’s creation as good.  That we will work to create a society that is right side up when so much of it seems to be upside down.  And I pray that we will work to see all of our fellow travelers on this planet as also being created in the likeness of the creator and as such worthy of respect and to be seen as beloved children of God – without labels. 

Oh… and one little warning.  Creation is messy and being co-creators is likely to mean that ministry will likely entail messiness.  But many times it is joy and beauty that is born of the messiness.  The joy of seeing a young homeless person at ease in sitting in the church.  The joy of feeding people who are hungry – hungry both for food but also for companionship and spiritual food.  The Joy of doing God’s work in this space.


Sunday, October 15, 2017

The Kingdom of Heaven is Like....Really????

Sermon for October 15, 2017

Proper 23A – RCL – Track 1 

Once more Jesus spoke to the people 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. 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, 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. 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.

“But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe, and he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?’ And he was speechless. Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ For many are called, but few are chosen.”

Today we heard yet another parable and as I mentioned last week we need to fasten our seat belts and put on our crash helmets whenever Jesus tells a parable. Because it is not going to end the way we think it should.  If we really listen to the parable it will reach into our very souls and shake us to our core.  And I find this to be particularly true when it is a parable purporting to inform us about the Kingdom of Heaven.  And this parable in particular is disturbing.

The kingdom of heaven is like a royal wedding feast where the first guests ignore the invitation  which enraged the king who orders their murder and then invites scoundrels in from the countryside.  Only one of them didn’t happen to wear the right clothes so he is cast into outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.

Really!  If that is our God and the kingdom of heaven then I think I signed up for the wrong thing.  Perhaps socialist secularism is better suited to my beliefs!  How do we make sense of a kingdom where there is violence and destruction?  How am I, as a preacher, supposed to make sense of this parable?

This week as I pondered the lesson one of my fellow clergy, Lynell Walker, suggested that the one being cast out is Jesus – after all this parable is told during what we would call Holy Week – when Jesus has come to Jerusalem and knows that the temple authorities are plotting his death.  And perhaps that could make sense.  After Jesus was sent to death on the cross our tradition tells us that he went to that place where there is weeping an gnashing of teeth only to break open the gates of hell and liberate those human souls that had gone to that place.

And then I reflected back on last week’s parable where I suggested that perhaps the vineyard that is the kingdom of Heaven is God’s dream of creating a place of love, mercy and forgiveness on this earth and not just in some future city in the sky. A place with eternal organ music and Gregorian chant – after all that is the music of heaven right! 

But all kidding aside what if Jesus is telling us that we are getting this kingdom thing all wrong.  What if we are the King in this story?  Are we like the people in the story from Genesis who as soon as Moses in not around created a new god to worship?  Do we judge people not with mercy and forgiveness but with harshness and violence?

Indeed I read this parable as a condemnation of much of what we as a society are up to these days.  Our society is just like the one Jesus came to over two thousand years ago.  We have religious Pharisees demanding that people with the right background and the right clothes are the ones to show up.  We have elevated the second amendment to the point where for many it has become a golden calf.  We have demonized homeless people, GLBT people and anyone who doesn’t look like us because based on their natural origin we insist that they are bad people and perhaps terrorists.   It doesn’t seem to matter to some people that large parts of our economy benefit from people immigrating into this country to do work that these leaders would never do.  Our leaders seem more interested in keeping the one percent raking in the money than about making sure the poor have health care. 

I hear elected leaders and others say that this is a Christian nation and then act contrary to the teachings of Jesus.  They are quick to judge and condemn based on classes and appearances.  They are quick to throw people out of the party because they are not wearing the right clothes.  

Perhaps one of the reasons we don’t see people coming into church is that we are being judged for being judgmental and hypocritical.  That is certainly what I would believe if I only listened to the news and read the comments on social media and in the paper.

But Jesus said in the Gospel that he came to seek mercy.  That he came to seek love.  So perhaps we are the ones expecting the right guests to show up in heaven – it is not God that is the king in this story it is us.  We are the ones throwing people into outer darkness. We are the ones that continually throw Jesus out and worship idols.  Idols of security and comfort.

At the Wednesday service that I lead at St. Paul’s the un-homed and marginally homed make up the majority of people at the service most weeks.  And lately that has included a group of young homeless men in their early 20’s.  Young homeless men that I witness doing more to help each other than the average person walking in downtown Sacramento does.  Young people, un-homed or in shelters that give what little money they have to help another homeless couple buy medication for their canine companion.  They regularly attend the service – I still am not sure why.  Perhaps it is because we offer a non-judgmental place where they can rest.  Perhaps it is because we feed them lunch after the service.  These young men are more Christian than many people who say they are Christian and I am not even sure if they would self-identify that way.

When we look at being disciples Jesus is telling us it is not enough to just say yes one time and then go out and worship idols.  We need to continually work at being disciples.  We need to stop judging people by the clothes they wear.  Once called we need to seek justice and mercy and call out leaders that are worshipping idols.  We need to continue to work to make God’s dream of mercy and love come to fruition here.

I give thanks that we are doing a lot as a small community to make that a reality on this corner of God’s kingdom.  My prayer is that we will be able to stay the course.  That we will be willing to continue to advocate for policies that bring mercy and forgiveness to this world.  And I pray that we will recognize when we start worshipping idols and will ask for forgiveness before we end up inadvertently throwing Jesus, throwing God, out into the outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.