Friday, September 30, 2011

Pentecost 16a - conclusion

I like a good wine, especially a big Cab. Good wine does not happen accidently. It’s a marriage of natural conditions and the capacity to craft something from what nature provides. A vine blessed by a balance of sun and soil and rain but without time and the talent of the vintner would just be grape juice. The lessons for Pentecost 16a imagine Israel as a pleasant planting that despite the best efforts of the vintner only produced sour grapes. Isaiah blames the vine asking what more could have been done to produce good grapes. The psalmist is not so sure asking what the vineyard did to deserve destruction. Jesus, the prophetic stone rejected, predicts the keys to the vineyard changing hands, although the new tenants are hardly more trustworthy and one wonders if the parable might not need a retelling. We often find ourselves in a dry vineyard brought about by decisions made or delayed. But just as often we wonder what went wrong and call God to explain. And there are times when hearing the truth about ourselves we understand the consequence of serving ourselves instead of the owner of the vineyard. The text that is good news for us is that despite our failings right relationship with God comes by faith which will produce fruit whenever like the apostle Paul we press on to take hold of the God who has already taken hold of us.   

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Pentecost 16a - Matthew 21:33-46

Matthew 21:33-46
Since the text says Jesus is talking about “them” we can safely assume he is not talking about “us.” But then the living word, sharper and more active than a two edged sword, doesn’t let anyone off that easily. In many ways we are like the Pharisees of Jesus’ day. They were well versed in scripture and loved the law that revealed the way of the Lord. They were familiar with the pattern of religious ritual that gave shape to their every day and marked the passing of the seasons. They trained up their children in the way they should go so that when it came to the time of their passing God would not abandon them to Sheol. Jesus, the self proclaimed rock rejected, threatened the very fabric of their religious life and no matter how Matthew remembered it, the pious people of Jesus’ day were serving God by wanting to arrest Jesus and make him conform to the faith of his forebears. So what might that say about the “us” that objects to being identified with “them”? We have ways set in stone that elevate human traditions to divine status. We judge others by their ability to conform to the pattern of our faith. We might be well meaning but that doesn’t mean we aren’t misguided. The good news is that the stone over which we stumble and the rock that crushes our personal preferences is the precious cornerstone that for the sake of those outside the vineyard would have us give it away in obedience to the heir who owns it.  

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Pentecost 16a - Philippians 3:4-14

Philippians 3:4-14
Like the apostle Paul I myself have reason for confidence in the flesh. Born to Lutheran educators, baptized in my first month, memorized the liturgy before I could read, confirmed by my thirteenth year, graduate of a Lutheran grade school, high school, college, and seminary and served as a Lutheran grade school teacher, youth director and pastor. I know we’re saved by grace but surely a Lutheran pedigree like that counts for something? Of course it does and in many ways it is the reason I am able to press on to take hold of the Christ who took hold of me through the water of baptism and the faith of parents and teachers. Paul considers confidence in the flesh as loss but clearly values the heritage it represents and his brothers and sisters according to the flesh for whom he would sacrifice his salvation. (Romans 9:3) So while we place no confidence in our religious pedigree we are grateful for the formation that does not happen without the family of faith.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Pentecost 16a - Psalm 80:7-15

Psalm 80:7-15
The psalmist must not have read Isaiah who lays the blame for broken walls on the “pleasant planting” that produced sour grapes. There are times when we can identity clearly the cause and effect of choices made or delayed, but there are just as many times when “why, O Lord?” has no obvious answer. We cannot endure for long with the "why, O Lord" and so when the walls of our security have been broken down and the pleasant planting of our lives ravaged by calamity we cry aloud with the psalmist. “Restore us, God Almighty!” “Return to us, God Almighty!” “Look down from heaven and see!” Which is to say even when there are no satisfactory answers to “why?” we trust the Lord still tends the vine of our lives.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Pentecost 16a - Isaiah 5:1-7

Isaiah 5:1-7
God’s lament sounds familiar because God’s sad song is so often ours as well. We invest time and energy and emotion into relationships that fail to produce hoped for results. Of course when human relationships go sour we say “it takes two to tango” while Isaiah envisions all the blame is on the vineyard God planted. It is true that sowing wild oats (grapes?) is common enough to be cliché but Israel, a small country situated between hostile empires, can hardly be blamed for trying to survive the place of its planting. Maybe that was the point all along. Trusting God was not supposed to be like all the other nations who sacrifice everything, including their first born, to appease the blood lust of their gods. The people of God were to reflect the same sort of care to the widow and the orphan and the sojourner as God showed to them. The fruit of righteousness was never meant to be about the sacrifice required by law but rather the law of living by love. In that respect God the gardener was dancing all alone so I guess it does take two to tango after all.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Pentecost 15a - conclusion

I’ve been watching a Habitat for Humanity house being built in the Sundance Square parking lot where my truck spends some time. Habitat for Humanity is supported by the Fund for Humanity which operates with the understanding that “what the poor need is not charity but capital, not caseworkers but co-workers. And what the rich need is a wise, honorable and just way of divesting themselves of their overabundance.” Habitat, begun in 1976 with Millard and Linda Fuller’s idea for affordable housing, shelters more than 2 million humans (and I imagine pets as well) in over 400,000 houses built by people of every race, color and creed working together to do something significant for someone else. Ezekiel imagines a world where children are not punished for the sins of parents but turning from their own sin live within a new heart and a new spirit. The psalmist sings of God who remembers mercy but is forgetful of youthful sins and perhaps hopes we will do the same. The ancient hymn of the church sings of Jesus who was in every way God but chose to live in our flesh and die our death so we could live His life. And like the son who said “no” but then lived “yes” I imagine the people in hard hats and matching t-shirts feel a little bit better about themselves and the world we inhabit together by pounding a few nails in a Habitat that will house humans they most likely will never meet.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Pentecost 15a - Matthew 21:23-32

Matthew 21:23-32
The chief priests and elders of the people are stuck between a rock and a hard place by Jesus’ question but will come up with a third option by the Friday we call “Good”. But then Jesus knew along that “crucify” would be the only possible answer for the powers that be pushed into a corner from which there was no escape. Stuck between the way of God we are unwilling to follow and the way of the world we are reluctant to resist the third way is the only option for us as well. Crucify God and maybe this time the persistent question will stay dead and we’ll be done with it. But like Jesus on the third day crucifixion is the beginning not the end. What needs to die is the part of us that is like the son in the parable who says “yes” but lives “no” so that the part of us that rises is like the son who said “no” but is finally free to live “yes”.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Pentecost 15a - Philippians 5:1-13

Philippians 5:1-13
The whole of the scriptures is expressed in Philippians 2:5-11 and if all we had was this ancient creedal hymn it would be enough to reveal the mind of the Divine. In Jesus it is God who is emptied into all of humanity and in servant form suffers a dreadful death designed by the children created in God’s own image. How is it possible that the church has such a sordid history of not finding any consolation in this expression of ultimate love, no compassion, no sympathy, demanding like minds be bound by hard cover catechisms where right belief matters more than loving fellow believers, let alone the world Jesus died to save? The promise is every knee will bow and every tongue confess that the Jesus emptied, serving, suffering and dying for creatures who could care less was what God was about all along. Being of like mind means be like Jesus who never met a sinner he didn’t love to death.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Pentecost 15a - Psalm 25:1-9

Psalm 25:1-9
David trusts that the rebellious sins of his youth will not be remembered by the Lord and I have no doubt that the same applies to the sins of one’s middle age as well. That is because the Lord, who is our all day long hope, does not need to be prompted to remember great mercy and love for that is the character of the One who erases the record of everything about us that makes mercy necessary. Now if only we could do the same for others, and God help us, for ourselves. But the truth about us is that shame is our constant companion and we live with the memory of rebellious ways and youthful sins revisiting ancient history as if it happened yesterday. So maybe the instructions sinners need most is a lesson on forgiveness where charity begins at home.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Pentecost 15a - Ezekiel 18:1-4; 25-32

Apparently the prophet is not familiar with family systems theory. The sins of the parents are always visited upon the children and sour grapes do not grow sweeter with more time on the vine. We are all shaped by our past and not in control of our future which makes our present an unpredictable place. So what if we were to say we are not responsible? I didn’t choose my family of origin and even though they did the best they could they carried with them the same sort of things that have made me less than I desire to be. And I say that from the perspective of having loving parents; kind, decent people who none-the-less live their brokenness in ways they do not like. Heaven help the children that welcome death because they live in hell. So are the ways of the Lord unfair? Of course they are. That is why the Lord bound by our past with no pleasure possible died naked and alone nailed to a piece of wood in order to secure a future for us where the life of the parent and the child would not be subject to the corruption inherent in our DNA.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Let the Love of Jesus

I wrote these lyrics three years ago. The tune is CCR's version of Midnight Special.

E                      A7
Let the love of Jesus
Shine its light on me
Let the love of Jesus
Shine its light me

                             A7                                           E
Well Jesus told a story, bout some workers in a field

                   B7                                           E
Who got to thinking, we deserve a better deal

                                   A7                                             E
When the day finally ended, they thought they’d get more

                         B7                                                   E  E7
But the master told them, it’s what you singed up for.


No one’s deserving, no matter who you are
All sin is equal, in the sight of God.
All are forgiven, and in Christ set free
To live the love of Jesus, for all the world to see


Well when Jesus comes looking, for you to work today
Don’t sit around and argue, about your pay.
You’ll be rewarded, by the work you do
When you show others mercy, like its been shown to you


Pentecost 14a - Matthew 20:1-16

Matthew 20:1-16
The kingdom of heaven is a contradiction of the more common kingdom where fair play is measured by survival of the fittest and the winner is the one who dies with the most toys. The all-day workers sweating in the sun obviously deserve more wages than the slackers who sat around all day. You can bet that the next time the master went looking for workers the marketplace had become a right to wait state and expecting a full day’s pay for the last hour was the new normal. That is why the kingdom of heaven is like something no one ever does. And if we are not outright envious of God’s generosity we are at least stingier than Jesus when it comes to the “kingdom come” where last and first are reversed.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Pentecost 14a - Philippians 1:20-30

To live is Christ. To die is gain. We tend to believe these two statements in reverse. To live is gain. To die is Christ. Life is held onto as long as humanly possible and death is only welcome when life itself has become intolerable. Or when living a life worthy of the calling is a means to an end. In other words one believes in order to receive a reward (heaven) and avoid punishment (hell). But if the life that is worthy of the calling is the end itself then the gain is the privilege of believing in Christ and sharing his sufferings which means death is just joining more fully with the Christ that is already fully joined to us. The point is the two are so closely related as to be the same. To live is Christ. To die is Christ. The gain is the same.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Pentecost 14a - Psalm 145:1-8

Psalm 145:1-8
“One generation commends your works to another” is the way the faith has been passed down through the ages so that the ancient story of mighty acts and awesome works is not lost. More than myth the ancient story is retold in the living language of the generation entrusted to bear it into the infinite future. Granted, the “passing on” generation always hopes that their way of telling the story will be as enduring as the story itself and that the generation “receiving” the gift will not throw away the wrapping it came in. But the truth is our way of understanding “the Lord gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and rich in love” is the same for every generation, even if it’s shared on a Kindle instead of a scroll.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Pentecost 14a - Jonah 3:10-4:1-11

Jonah 4:1-11  Debate on the Book of Jonah is often focused on the detail of the “whale” and whether someone could be swallowed up and survive. Those who read the story as literal truth do so out of reverence for the scriptures as the source and norm of all doctrine and faith and believe if you doubt the literal truth of one story all the other stories are called into question. Those who read Jonah as a parable or allegory also reverence the scriptures as the source and norm of all faith and doctrine but believe a story does not need to be literally true to be true. The point of this story, which I am quite willing to swallow as literally true, is in chapter four. Jonah did not want to go to Nineveh because he knew God would be merciful and forgive the enemies of Israel and that was “very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry.” (4:1) God provided shade to cool Jonah’s jets but then struck it down to make a point and Jonah sitting in the hot sun and lamenting the burned up bush was “angry enough to die.” (4:9) With or without the big fish story this is the part of the text that is literally true about us, especially when like Jonah we care more about the bush of our own understanding than the “great city” of fellow believers whose fish story may be bigger, or smaller, than ours.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Pentecost 13a - Conclusion

I know there will be some who see a more than coincidental connection between the lectionary texts for the 13th Sunday after Pentecost and the 10th anniversary of September 11, 2001. Joseph forgiving brothers who did their best to do him in; the psalmist rejoicing in God who is forgetful when it comes to sin but remembers compassion forever; the Christians in Rome told to stop judging between practices of religious piety because all are directed towards God; and a slave, who doesn’t ask for forgiveness but only more time to pay a debt he knows he cannot pay, is forgiven the entire amount only to turn around and treat a fellow slave with contempt. So is God trying to tell us something? Well, of course. God is always trying to tell us something but that is the nature of the living word. It may be that there are lessons to be learned about how God desires us to live together as the human family and forgiveness is unconditional, for in the end all of creation belongs to God and all people are created in God’s image. But the more appropriate application is that any violence in the name of God is wicked and misrepresents the creator who holds all life sacred. We might preach and teach that all sin is equal in the eyes of God but the actions of the terrorists cannot be compared to the trivial sins we commit. Yes. I said trivial, even though the lies we tell are hurtful to others as well as ourselves and the ripple effects of our prejudice and pride and immorality are a destructive energy of which we cannot see end. But the callous hearts and the evil imagination that perpetrated this crime against the sacredness of life is beyond our ability to understand or in the end forgive. As many of you have come to suspect I believe in heaven more than hell, although I have no doubt every human being will be judged and every last one found guilty. However, I trust God’s forgetfulness when it comes to sin and limiting God’s mercy remembered is beyond my pay grade. Maybe the judgment faced by the terrorists I find it difficult to forgive is that when they expected to be welcomed in eternity as glorious martyrs they came face to face with God who was weeping and in that moment they knew in their very souls how horribly wrong their vision of the Holy was. That sounds a lot like hell to me. Truth to be told I fear my trivial sins will bring me to see the same sight. God help us all.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Pentecost 13a - Matthew 18:21-35

Matthew 18:21-35
It is obvious from Peter’s question that he is looking for a loophole and the offer of seven “get out of jail free” cards appears quite generous, especially if the seven times “sins against me” is for the same offense. Seventy-seven times must have come as quite a shock and the parable that follows does not soften the blow. Forgiving a brother or sister from the heart is not an option and there are no loopholes. I don’t know if a purgatory like punishment is the method of payment for those who have racked up a lifetime of debt by withholding forgiveness. If it is a good bit of the church is in trouble, but then why not for the church profits from the business of conditional forgiveness. That of course negates the cross of Christ and means payment is still required by adherence to the law, even if it is the law of love. Or in other words, same tune different verse. On the other hand those who count on the cross to forgive them and yet withhold mercy from others live in a prison of their own design from which they can never escape. Truth is if we apply this parable to ourselves we too cannot escape the sentence of torture. None of us are innocent. The reason we don’t forgive is because like the wicked slave we don’t value being forgiven. But if we are finally and fully convicted of our hopeless situation we will stop pleading for more time to make good on promises we cannot keep and stop requiring others to do what we cannot. Or in other (and better) words, “The quality of mercy is not strained, it droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven upon the place beneath. It is twice blest: It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.”  William Shakespeare - The Merchant of Venice

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Pentecost 13a - Romans 14:1-12

I think vegetarian and former Calvary intern turned Pittsburgh Pastor Tara Lynn might have a quarrel or two with the apostle Paul over who is weak. It takes no small measure of chutzpah to eat vegetarian at a Texas BBQ joint. Thank God for pickles! Of course vegetarians take a little bit of ribbing in Texas and other red meat states as well but maybe not the same as in the early church where “you are what you eat” were fighting words. Centuries of animosity between Jew and Gentile did not disappear overnight. If anything the differences that could be largely avoided through segregation were now inescapable. So Paul reminds them that they are no longer defined by their personal piety for they belong to Lord who welcomes Jew and Gentile alike no matter what they eat or which day they observe. On a more personal note this passage took on new meaning for me some years ago when my mother called from Chicago to say my father was being taken back into surgery because his bypass was leaking. At the end of what you can imagine was an emotional conversation she quoted this passage from Paul as the source of her strength, and my father’s as well.  “Whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s,” That is why you memorize scripture and sacred song so that when life itself hangs in the balance the words that have informed your life come to mind and are more than able to give confidence to a father, courage to a wife and comfort to a son.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Pentecost 13a - Psalm 103:1-13

Psalm 103:1-13
It is easy to bless the Lord, O my ssy to bless th eLord oul on a beautiful day like today in Fort Worth, TX. 78 degrees and sunny with a slight breeze is a benefit I will not forget, especially next week when triple digits are forecasted to return for one last hurrah. The psalmist satisfied with good things and filled with youthful energy remembers sins forgiven and diseases healed, which means there were days when benefits were hard to find and blessings too few to number. But the love of the Lord can be counted on to be steady and constant precisely because our lives are not.  Which is why my thoughts and prayers turn this beautiful day in Fort Worth to people all over Texas battling fires started by high winds and low humidity and devastating drought. We count on lives redeemed from the grave so that in times of ease or difficulty, abundance or want, justice or oppression, beauty or devastation we remember we belong to the Lord and all our times are in God’s hands. And in the meantime we pray for rain.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Pentecost 13a - Genesis 50:15-21

This is the happy ending to a story of sibling rivalry that led to violence and treachery and a father’s broken heart. It is as much our story as it is theirs. Like Jacob favoring Joseph because he grieves the death of Joseph’s mother Rachael we often do not anticipate the chain of events that follow in the wake of our grief. While Joseph can’t be blamed for being thrown down the well it was his boasting that pushed his brothers over the edge. We often speak in ways unbecoming without considering others. The violence and deceit that broke Jacob’s heart is the tragic consequence of jealously unchecked. This too is our story as from Cain and Abel to the present human beings would seem to be predisposed to violence. But the happy ending is our story as well. Jacob blesses Joseph’s sons before he dies and maybe repents of that colored coat and the misery it brought.  Joseph humbled by his journey from favored son to slave to master of Egypt’s grain surprises his fearful brothers and the family torn apart by deceit is restored in shared tears. It might read like a fairy tale but the truly happy ending to this story flows from a Father’s broken heart over his children’s warring madness who showing no favorites takes on the form of a servant to suffer the harm of the cross in order to preserve more than just “a numerous people.” It is God’s hope that knowing what we know we would be more inclined to live the end of story than the part that comes more naturally to us.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Pentecost 12a - conclusion

The LSU Tigers and the Oregon Ducks are in Fort Worth, Texas for the Cowboy Classic. It’s easy to tell the difference. The Ducks are the ones molting in the Texas heat. The Tigers are purring in the low humidity. Of course it won’t matter when they play tomorrow in the Jerry Dome (the world’s largest sports bar) as it is air conditioned and the way the Dallas Cowboys play the temperature is always lukewarm. (Ouch!) Sport rivalries lead to all sorts of shenanigans and even pleasant people who give others the benefit of the doubt can act in ways unbecoming when scores are kept. It would appear that God is keeping score of rights and wrongs and holding Ezekiel responsible for recording them but would be willing to award extra points for hearts in the right place. The Psalmist dreads disgrace but delights in fair play and even if the outcome is less than favorable welcomes a judgment that is just. “Love does no wrong to neighbor” might not be in the playbook tomorrow but playing by the rules will be and in some ways that is the same thing. And finally the proscription for church discipline is obviously not the same as the regulated violence on the gridiron, but then again it would appear that a game based entirely on violence is able to control conflict whereas a movement based entirely on peace can’t seem to escape it. (Ouch!)

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Pentecost 12a - Matthew 18:15-20

Matthew 18:15-20
The Matthew 18 step by step process for promoting harmony in the church is often cited but rarely followed, at least in the order Jesus intended. More often than not we stop speaking to the one who has offended us while “venting” to one or two others who then spread it around the church until it gets back to the source of the sin. Along the way some will side with the sinner and the church becomes embroiled in a conflict that was originally a private matter between two people. Meanwhile the pagans and tax collectors look on and laugh and wonder why in the world anyone would want to belong to such a dysfunctional family. But maybe that is where the trouble starts for us. We all say the church is made up of sinners but then seem surprised when members of the church sin against each other. Let’s just own our dysfunctional status and agree that conflict in the church is the inevitable result of putting sinners in the same room and expecting them to get along without telling the truth to each other. But Jesus hopes that his love for us will lead to our loving him and our loving him will inevitably lead to loving the other sinners in the room enough to do a difficult thing. The reason you go in private to the one who has sinned against you is because you love Jesus and Jesus loves the dysfunctional family that bears his name.