Unabashed Joy II

Isaiah 35

The desert and the dry land will be glad;
    the wilderness will rejoice and blossom like the crocus.

They will burst into bloom, and rejoice with joy and singing.
They will receive the glory of Lebanon,
    the splendor of Carmel and Sharon.
They will see the Lord’s glory, the splendor of our God.

Strengthen the weak hands, and support the unsteady knees.
Say to those who are panicking: “Be strong! Don’t fear!
    Here’s your God, coming with vengeance; with divine retribution
    God will come to save you.”

Then the eyes of the blind will be opened,
    and the ears of the deaf will be cleared.
Then the lame will leap like the deer,
    and the tongue of the speechless will sing.
Waters will spring up in the desert,
    and streams in the wilderness.
The burning sand will become a pool,
    and the thirsty ground, fountains of water.
The jackals’ habitat, a pasture;
    grass will become reeds and rushes.

 A highway will be there. It will be called The Holy Way.
The unclean won’t travel on it,
    but it will be for those walking on that way.

Even fools won’t get lost on it;
     no lion will be there, and no predator will go up on it.
None of these will be there;
    only the redeemed will walk on it.

The Lord’s ransomed ones will return and enter Zion with singing,
    with everlasting joy upon their heads.
Happiness and joy will overwhelm them;
    grief and groaning will flee away.

“Each year, it seems to get worse. The build-up to Christmas becomes more frenetic, more stressful, and more expensive with each passing season, and the observance of “Advent”–even the word itself–seems to get lost in our secularized holiday outburst of consumerism.”These words come to us today from the pen of Kathryn Matthews whose scathing observance of the post-modern Christmas Season seems to challenge the very notion of hope; of joy.

“And yet,” she continues, “each year, the hope is the same. Each year, underneath the fast-paced, media-driven, frantic preparations for ‘the big day’– the shopping, the family gatherings, the arrival of Santa and the opening of gifts, so many people express a yearning for something else, for something more.”[i]  

“A yearning for something more.” Perhaps that’s the greatest hope of this season we call “Advent.” Perhaps Advent isn’t about looking back at the nativity to see a little baby in a manger, so much as it is to remember the incarnate presence of the Divine that the Christ-Child represents. A memory, by the way, which can propagate within us a reason to be moved toward hope. The kind of hope that challenges us to look forward to the healing Reign of God in all its wholeness even while we are in the midst of brokenness; even as this pandemic rages on, even as injustice continues, even as our very planet is in peril.  It’s a hope not only that things might change, but that they will change.

Now, as people of faith we have come to understand that hope and the beginning of that movement toward Justice and Peace have indeed arrived in the person of Jesus Christ. And as the Body of Christ today, we continue to embody hope even as we look longingly toward a time when there will be a fullness of justice and peace and healing in this world. And not just some pie-in-the-sky, faraway in heaven after death kinda peace, but real peace and genuine transformation, right here, in this time and this place, and for all of God’s people and creation.

Now, we’re not the first to long for this peace, justice, and healing. The prophet in today’s reading looked forward to “signs of healing” or what I call “a movement toward wholeness” within creation itself. He wrote of a parched earth that would be transformed by streams of water breaking forth in the desert and of burning sands in the desert becoming pools of refreshing water. Beautiful imagery to be sure.

Imagery that invites us to recall the Peaceful Reign also from the Book of Isaiah. A Peaceful Reign where swords are pounded into plowshares and weapons of war and death are transformed into tools of agriculture, tools of life. A Peaceful Reign where lions and lambs coexist and no one will be held back by weakness of body or spirit, for God, whose power makes all things possible, will hold them up and carry them through.[ii] 

And again, beautiful imagery. But then, Isaiah unloads on us with this matter of “vengeance”. Vengeance isn’t something we like to think about at Christmastime, is it? So, what gives? Well, this is a place where the great United Church of Christ theologian Walter Brueggemann helps us out a bit. He expands upon this idea of God’s “vengeance” by transforming it into something “positive.” He says, “..that God will come to right wrong, to order chaos, to heal sickness, to restore life to its rightful order” and all of these things are encapsulated by Brueggemann in a single term: “transformative compassion” And here’s the really awesome part! This compassion can be expected to transform the lives of those who are “overwhelmed” or incapable of “living effectively or joyously.” People we all know. People we love. People like us.

But what did all this mean to Isaiah? Well, it meant that the lame would not just walk but would leap, and perhaps even dance with joy! The speechless would not just find words but music and a song of joy. “People are given back their lives,” Brueggemann notes; and “humanity is restored to its full function”[iii]

Do you see where I’m going here? The image of a lame person walking is awesome, I’m sure that person would be happy. But to leap and dance, that’s joy. Isaiah wants us to understand that joy, unabashed joy is what lays at the very core of God’s coming wholeness to all the earth.  

Now, you might say, that’s great theology, but what does it mean for me? Well, when December 26 rolls around, I think we must ask ourselves these questions: Where am I today? Where’s my hope? Where will I continue to find joy? I mean, will we continue to be disappointed because we didn’t get to gather with family or at church, or will we be let down because these modified holiday celebrations that didn’t quite measure up to expectations, or will we be just plain exhausted as we’re forced to face our troubled world once again? I don’t know what your answers to these questions will be, or mine for that matter. But perhaps Dr. King was on to something when he said, “We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.” …never lose infinite hope.

And even if our new holiday traditions were lovely and did live up to our expectations, is there not more to our hope than just a lovely holiday? Where do we find Dr. King’s “infinite hope”? Where’s that unabashed joy that supersedes mere happiness? And looking at Advent itself with an even wider lens, how is God still speaking to us today, in the church and in society, about our expectations?

Well, as I see it, this is something we must struggle with right here in our churches. We must challenge ourselves on a personal level as we move beyond the societal expectations of the holidays and begin to discover that deeper joy that Isaiah so longed for us to indwell. And on a communal or societal level, how will we as a church community continue to innovate, to work toward social justice and systemic change, and to engage all kinds of people as we begin to journey together, toward wholeness, by becoming a reflection of this deeper understanding of joy.

And again, there are no pat answers here. Even within the structure of community we’re all individuals with individual callings and talents and challenges and we’re all on our own journeys of faith. My friends, God is calling each of us to BE the Church in our own unique way; we’re a patchwork of characters if you will. But here’s the thing. It’s from a diverse patchwork of colors and patterns that the most beautiful quilts are created. So, the great hope for us today, the unabashed joy for us as we continue this journey, is that we are engaged in an on-going process of co-creating with God a beautiful quilt that will be marked by the peace and justice that Isaiah speaks of here. Not as individuals, but as a collection of individuals, a chorus of voices, neighbor with neighbor and friend with friend.

This is the deeper vision of Isaiah that we’ve been considering this Advent season, a vision that has the ability to move us beyond the mundane trappings of the holidays, to discover the “transformative compassion” of being in service to others, of welcoming and inviting all people to God’s table, of sharing the unconditional love of God and yes, the Unabashed Joy of Christmas with all whom we encounter in this world.

So, my prayer for all of you, as we approach the manger once again, is that you will open yourselves not only to the presence of the Sacred, but to the deeper joy and relentless hope of the season and that you will be compassionately transformed into instruments of peace and justice and healing as the on-going process of God Reign continues to indwell all of creation.[iv]

May it be so for you and for me. Amen and Amen

[i] Kathryn Matthews Choose to be Courageous (www.ucc.org/samuel/sermon/seeds) 2019

[ii] Ibid Matthews

[iii] Walter Brueggemann Isaiah 1-19, Westminster Bible Companion found at

(www. ucc.org/Samuel/ sermon/seeds) 2019

[iv] Phil Milam Unabashed Joy (www.birchwoodblessingsblog.com) Dec. 10 2019

From Hope to Peace

Philippians 4:4-9 (Common English Bible)

Be glad in the Lord always! Again I say, be glad! Let your gentleness show in your treatment of all people. The Lord is near. Don’t be anxious about anything; rather, bring up all of your requests to God in your prayers and petitions, along with giving thanks. Then the peace of God that exceeds all understanding will keep your hearts and minds safe in Christ Jesus. From now on, brothers and sisters, if anything is excellent and if anything is admirable, focus your thoughts on these things: all that is true, all that is holy, all that is just, all that is pure, all that is lovely, and all that is worthy of praise. Practice these things: whatever you learned, received, heard, or saw in us. The God of peace will be with you.

“From Hope to Peace And All the Gunk In-Between.” That’s the title of today’s Message. And I think it’s especially significant today considering the times we’re living through. I mean, we often talk about Advent in terms of a journey, right? And I was reminded this week to remember to “stop and smell the roses” along the way.  I was reminded to remember to look for the Sacred in each moment.

Now, this reminder got me to thinking about something I read a couple of years ago. In her book Stitches: A Handbook on Meaning, Hope and Repair, Anne Lamott helps us to think about living in the moment. Lamott writes: Every time we choose the good action or response, the descent, the valuable, it builds, incrementally, to renewal, resurrection, the place of newness, freedom, justice. The equation is: life, death, resurrection, hope.” She goes on to say, “We live stitch by stitch, when were lucky. If you fixate on the big picture, the whole shebang, the overview, you miss the stitching. And maybe the stitching is crude, or is unraveling, but if it was precise, we’d pretend that life is just fine and running like a Swiss watch. This is not helpful if on the inside our understanding is that life is more often the cuckoo clock with rusty gears.”[i]What a profound statement! I mean, in this time of pandemic when everything around us seems to be upside/down, I think we tend to “fixate on the big picture.” And please don’t misunderstand me. There is a time and a place to consider the big picture. Believe me, I’m a big picture kind of person. But in times like these it’s so important to live, as Anne Lamott suggests, “stitch by stitch.” We must pause and examine each stitch because each stitch, each encounter with another person, each moment spent listening, really listening to the sounds of nature, contains a bit of God; a spark of the divine as it were. You see, Advent is a time when we must live the life God has given us right now. We must refuse to live yesterday over and over again and resist the temptation to save our best selves for tomorrow. Do not put off living the kind of life your meant to live. Live in the moment. Which leads us to an even deeper place.  A place where we finally discover that living in the moment can bring peace.

What do I mean? Well, consider the hope we encountered last week, the anticipation of Advent, which, in the order of things, gives way this week to the peace of Christ, a peace that Paul says, “exceeds all understanding.” Why? Well, hope is a precursor to peace, but we all know that the transition isn’t always smooth. There can be a lot of “gunk” in-between.

So, I think, the question becomes: “How do we wade through all of the gunk in order to discover this sense of peace?” Well, just the other day, when speaking about the abnormal-ness of our new normal,  I used the example of making lemonade out of life’s lemons. Now, this is an expression we’ve all heard a thousand times. It’s glib, it’s pedestrian, I know. But it’s also appropriate in these difficult days. I mean, how many more lemons can 2020 give us? How much can we take? That’s, of course, the lemon part. However, the lemonade part of this example might surprise you. The lemonade, as I see it, boils down to a single word: opportunity. Yes, we will miss our traditions. And yes, we will miss our family gatherings and seeing our kids and grandkids in person. But once the dust has settled on these realities, what opportunities for lemonade do these lemons provide?

Well, I can think of a couple. First, reflection. Amid the busyness, the hustle and bustle of preparing for Christmas, we sometimes forget the meaning of it all. We sometimes forget that the Christ-child is so much more than a ceramic figurine in our Nativity set.  We sometimes forget that the incarnation forever changed the world and forever change the way humanity viewed itself in relation to the Sacred.

Reflection on the true meaning of Christmas is the first thing and the second is related to it and ties back into this idea of living in the moment. You see, this change in ritual and routine affords us the opportunity to really contemplate and then implement those “higher ideals” that Paul shared. In our text for today, Paul said, “if anything is excellent and if anything is admirable, focus your thoughts on those things: all that is true, all that is holy, all that is just, all that is pure, all that is lovely, and all that is worthy of praise.” Perhaps one of our pitchers of lemonade this Christmas Season could be a “refocusing” on any one of these values. Values, that while offered here in a very broad sense, could be narrowed down, by each of us, and applied to a specific event or segment of our journey. Values that could be lived-out in the moment, stitch by stitch, in ways that are as unique as each of you are unique people of God. Which, Paul says, will invite “…the God of peace to be with you.”

So, here we go. The journey continues as we move through all the gunk seeking solace, seeking that “solemn stillness”. But, our journey doesn’t end here. Next week, on the third Sunday of Advent we will consider the place of love in all this. So, until then, may your journey be smooth, may you and your family and your friends and your neighbors, be healthy and safe, and may the Peace of Christ, a peace that exceeds all understanding, indwell your spirit and enliven your soul. Amen, and the people of God said, “Amen.”

[i] Anne Lamott Stitches: A Handbook on Meaning, Hope and Repair (Riverhead Books, 2013)

An Attitude of Gratitude (Revisited)


Psalm 100 (from the Inclusive Psalms)

Acclaim our God with Joy, all the earth. Serve our God with Gladness! Enter into God’s presence with joyful song. Know that Adonai is God! Our God made us, and we belong to the Creator; We are God’s people and the sheep of God’s pasture. Enter God’s gates with thanksgiving and the courts with praise. Give Thanks to God! Bless God’s Name! For our God is good; God’s steadfast love endures forever, And God’s faithfulness to all generations.  

An Attitude of Gratitude (Revisited)

I remember the first time I shared a message called An Attitude of Gratitude. It was in Scales Mound Illinois, many, many winters ago, when I was still an undergraduate student and serving as a licensed pastor in a small, rural congregation. I remember it so clearly, because it was only the second time we had gathered for worship post-911. The week before, and the week leading up to that Sunday, were fraught with fear, raw emotion, conspiracy theories, and perhaps most troubling, words of hate and blame toward our Muslim neighbors.

Now, I wish I had a copy or could recall the message in its entirety, but I don’t and I cannot. But do remember two things. First, the overwhelmingly positive response to a message about gratitude, patients, and love defeating hate during such difficult times. And second, I remember I shared a quote from the famous mystic Meister Eckhart. Eckhart said of gratitude, “If the only prayer you said in your whole life was, ‘thank you,’ that would suffice.” Interesting. He’s saying in essence that the very heart of prayer, the core of our relationship with the divine, is gratitude. If our only prayer is “thank you,” that’s enough. Eckhart goes on to elaborate, “…acknowledging the good that you already have in your life,” he said, “is the foundation for all abundance.”[i]

Now, I share this experience today because I think we, as a people and as a nation, find ourselves once again mired in fear and angst. And who can blame us? This second-wave of the pandemic continues to rage out-of-control. It’s isolating us, it’s infecting us and killing too many of our neighbors. It’s cancelling or altering our holiday traditions and there’s no real end in sight. People are just getting tired of it. And if that’s not enough, elected officials at the very highest levels of our government are refusing to accept the clear and legal results of our election threating the very core of our democracy. And of course, there’s still poverty and hunger and homelessness, there’s the existential threat of global climate change, and there continues to be racism and inequality across our nation. So, yes, there are plenty of things of worry about.

But here’s the thing. Thanksgiving is more than just turkey and football and anticipating Black Friday deals. Thanksgiving is even more than pilgrims and feasts. Thanksgiving is about taking stock of our lives and then showing our gratitude to God for our blessings. Thanksgiving is about renewing, reestablishing, “revisiting” an attitude of gratitude each year. “If the only prayer we say is, ‘thank you,’ that will suffice.”

But what if things aren’t so great? What if 2020 has kicked my butt and I just don’t feel like I have any gratitude left in me? Well, I came across an ancient saying from Buddhism this past week that might help us shed a little light in the dark places of 2020. The Buddha said, “…rise up and be thankful, for if we didn’t learn a lot today, at least we learned a little, and if we didn’t learn a little, at least we didn’t get sick, and if we got sick, at least we didn’t die; so, let us all be thankful.”[ii]

This wisdom is a stark reminder of the serious-ness of our times. We all know someone, an acquaintance, a friend, or God forbid, a family member, who has died from this disease. That’s the reality of our times. But we also know, we also know deep within our being, that we do not tread these troubled water alone. God is with us! God is present in our relationships and in our interactions with each other. God is present in our religious traditions, although they may look a little different this year. God is present out there in the natural world, calling to us upon the breath of the wind and with the lapping of each wave and in the gentle rustle of the trees. And God is present within us, within our very being; in our thoughts, our reasoning, our consciousness. And for all of these places where God is revealed, we can be truly thankful.

You see, the blessing here is that even in our isolation, even when there’s civil unrest, even while injustice still exists and hatred boils just under the surface; we don’t face this world alone. We have each other and we have God. That’s the essence of faith. A faith that carried our forbearers through difficult times and it’s the very same faith that has the potential to carry us through as well.

Now, the Psalmist understood this. In Psalm 100 the author says things like, Acclaim our God with Joy, all the earth,” “Serve our God with Gladness,” “Enter into God’s presence with joyful song,” and “Enter God’s gates with thanksgiving.” And we know that life was no picnic in his day. We know this because these “Psalms of Assent” we see in the 100’s are bracketed by “Psalms of Lament.” Laments, crying out to God for liberation from the trying times that they were experiencing; times of civil unrest, injustice, and disease. Sound familiar to anyone?

So, here’s the challenge from today’s text. Even amid all the changes to our traditions, even with all of the worries of our times, we are challenged to adopt an attitude of gratitude. We are called to be the church, the church isn’t a building, but rather a people. We are called to be a people of hope, a people of faith, a people of justice, we are called my friends, to be a grateful people, thanking God for all of our blessings. May it be so. Amen.

[i] Matthew Fox Meditations with Meister Eckhart (Inner Traditions Bear and Co.) 1983

[ii] A Saying from Traditional Buddhist Wisdom

A Shiny New Coin

Parable of the Valuable Coins

Matthew 25:14-30 Common English

“The kingdom of heaven is like a man who was leaving on a trip. He called his servants and handed his possessions over to them. To one he gave five valuable coins, and to another he gave two, and to another he gave one. He gave to each servant according to that servant’s ability. Then he left on his journey.

“After the man left, the servant who had five valuable coins took them and went to work doing business with them. He gained five more. In the same way, the one who had two valuable coins gained two more. But the servant who had received the one valuable coin dug a hole in the ground and buried his master’s money. “Now after a long time the master of those servants returned and settled accounts with them. The one who had received five valuable coins came forward with five additional coins. He said, ‘Master, you gave me five valuable coins. Look, I’ve gained five more.’ “His master replied, ‘Excellent! You are a good and faithful servant! You’ve been faithful over a little. I’ll put you in charge of much. Come, celebrate with me.’ “The second servant also came forward and said, ‘Master, you gave me two valuable coins. Look, I’ve gained two more.’ “His master replied, ‘Well done! You are a good and faithful servant. You’ve been faithful over a little. I’ll put you in charge of much. Come, celebrate with me.’ “Now the one who had received one valuable coin came and said, ‘Master, I knew that you are a hard man. You harvest grain where you haven’t sown. You gather crops where you haven’t spread seed. So I was afraid. And I hid my valuable coin in the ground. Here, you have what’s yours.’ “His master replied, ‘You evil and lazy servant! You knew that I harvest grain where I haven’t sown and that I gather crops where I haven’t spread seed? In that case, you should have turned my money over to the bankers so that when I returned, you could give me what belonged to me with interest. Therefore, take from him the valuable coin and give it to the one who has ten coins. Those who have much will receive more, and they will have more than they need. But as for those who don’t have much, even the little bit they have will be taken away from them. Now take the worthless servant and throw him out into the farthest darkness.’ “People there will be weeping and grinding their teeth.

A Shiny New Coin

William Faulkner once wrote, “You cannot swim for new horizons until you have courage to lose sight of the shore.” These words ring true for us today as we approach this timeless parable in a new way.

The proverbial shore here is the traditional way of understanding today’s parable. It holds that we’re called, as people of faith, to use our individual coins or “talents” for the good of all people. A great way to view this text. I have taught it that way many times as have many of my friends. This is also the way most Bible commentaries explain the Parable of the Talents. So, let me be clear, there’s nothing wrong with viewing this text through the lens of servanthood. But, at the same time, there’s some more going on here. But in order to get-at that “something,” we must first look at the parable itself.

Okay. In this parable the first servant turned his five valuable coins (called talents) into ten, the second turned his in to four, but the third hid his talent in the ground so that he would not lose it. Common wisdom says that we’re to be like the first servant, or at least, like the second one, but we should avoid at all costs being like the lazy, unprofitable third servant. And again, this isn’t a bad way to look at it. But that being said, I also believe that our common interpretation of the Parable of the Talents is completely opposite of what Jesus really meant. Let me explain…

Over the past twenty years or so, I have read, written, and taught a lot about the cultural and historical backgrounds of various Biblical texts. Context is my favorite word! And because of this attention to context, I have come to see that the cultural lens through which we read Scripture is completely foreign to the cultural lens in which Scripture was originally written or read.

Therefore, if we really want to understand the meaning and significance of what was written, we need to understand the cultural background of the people who wrote it and originally read it.

What do I mean by that? Well, we live in a materialistically-driven culture, governed by greed and the accumulation of wealth. That should come as no surprise to anyone. The Bible however, was written in an honor/shame culture. A culture where stuff and money didn’t matter nearly as much. You see, in this kind of culture, people desire honor above all else. Money is not an end, but a means to an end. In such a culture, someone might be insanely rich, but if they had no honor, they were not well-liked or respected.

Furthermore, since wealth and possessions were in limited supply, honor/shame cultures believed in a zero-sum economy. In other words, if one person gained wealth, it was necessarily at someone else’s expense. And this is important to understand as we look at our text. It’s important because the only way someone could accumulate wealth (gain more talents) was by taking it from someone else. The rich got richer at the expense of the poor. This is why ancient cultures such as this had so many “patrons.” As the rich accumulated more and more wealth, they saw it as their duty and responsibility to give back to society in the form of humanitarian works, giving alms to the poor, caring of widows and orphans, and so forth.  This way, the wealthy gained greater honor, but not necessarily greater wealth. [i]

Okay, let’s look at our parable once again through this cultural lens.

In our economically-driven culture, the heroes here are the servants who accumulate more wealth. But in an honor-based culture, the people who accumulate more wealth are the villains. Why? Because the only way they were able to get more was by taking it from someone else (i.e. the poor) So, the hero of the story is really the third servant, the one who did not become richer, but instead was content with what he was given. The master, however, gets mad at this third servant and tries to shame him by taking away (literally “stealing” is the word in Greek) the third one’s possessions and giving it to the one who is already rich.

Now, I know this is a challenging way of reading the Parable of the Talents, because we’re typically taught that the master represents God, and that each of us must give an account to God for how we used the time and money with which we were blessed. Obviously, in this alternate way of reading the Parable of the Talents, since the master behaves shamefully and teaches his servants to do the same, the master cannot represent God.[ii] I mean, when Jesus said, …those who have much will receive more, and they will have more than they need. But as for those who don’t have much, even the little bit they have will be taken away from them” …he wasn’t advocating for an upward redistribution of wealth. Instead, he’s criticizing the wealthy who haven’t taken care of the poor as Scripture commanded them. The master in this story isn’t God, but rather, the ones whom Jesus is taking to task.  

So, what does all this mean to us? Well, first of all, we don’t have to cast aside the idea of using our God-given talents for the benefit of humanity and all of creation. This is a twenty-first century, culturally defined way of viewing our text. This “servanthood” interpretation is an important aspect of our faith journey. But the original context is important for us to understand as well. I call this the “justice” interpretation.

In the justice interpretation we are invited to do more than simply use our talents, we are to share our resources as well. Like the patrons of old, we have been blessed with an abundance. Jesus is challenging us, both individually and collectively, to envision a society where everyone has access to the basic necessities and the opportunity to prosper. We are called to create a place where justice and equality and peace become more than mere ideals, but instead become living, breathing norms.

And this is vital for each of us to understand because over the course of the past eight months or so, we’ve found ourselves in the midst of “norm” building. What do I mean by that? Well, we’ve all heard the term “a new normal” in conjunction with this pandemic. But rather than lament the reality of these difficult days, maybe we should invest ourselves, our souls, into creating a culture where racial equality, kind words, and just actions become the norm. Maybe our new normal doesn’t have to be defined by disease, disunity, or death. These are the realities of our time, but we can choose to shine the light of justice in the coming days, months, and years by sharing our God-given talents and by participating in a downward, and ever-expanding, distribution of wealth.

So, as we continue to move in that direction, as we swim for Falkner’s new horizon, may we have courage to lose sight of the shore. May we, finally, turn our gaze in the direction of a just world for all people and the preservation of all creation. May it be so.   

[i] Jeremy Myers The Parable of the Talents Revisited (www.redeeminggod.com)2008

[ii] Ibid. Myers.

In The Aftermath

Hear the words of Paul as he challenges his followers, and us, to become imitators of Christ.

“Therefore,” he writes, “if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort in love, any sharing in the Spirit, any sympathy, complete my joy by thinking the same way, having the same love, being united, and agreeing with each other. Don’t do anything for selfish purposes, but with humility think of others as better than yourselves. Instead of each person watching out for their own good, watch out for what is better for others. Adopt the attitude that was in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 2:1-5)

Today’s Message: Humility in the Aftermath

I think it’s safe to say that most pastors look forward to the end of an election cycle. No matter which side of the fence we’re on, there are always opposing views within our congregations, and, as you all know, there are a myriad of strong opinions and emotions as election day approaches. I’ve seen churches actually split and I’ve seen clergy move on because of political differences. And I’ve always thought it a shame. It’s a shame because in the end, both sides miss an opportunity to understand their fellow believer on a deeper level.

Paul understood this. In today’s passage, we hear Paul speaking to the fledgling church in Philippi from his prison cell. He was speaking to them in the form of an epistle, or a letter, which was in response to a previous letter he had received from the church asking him to solve a problem or multiple problems for them. This is the only form of communication that we have from Paul. It’s kind of like we’re listening in on one side of a telephone conversation. We don’t actually have a copy of the letter that came to Paul, but we can surmise what the problems within the community were based upon his answer.

Now, contextually, this was one of the final letters if not the very last letter Paul ever wrote. You see, he was nearing the end of his life and I believe he knew it. Now, let’s pause here for a moment and think about this. If someone like Paul, a faithful teacher and apostle, knew he was nearing the end, wouldn’t he have saved his best for last? Or at the very least, would he have not winnowed his theology down to what was most important?

So, if this is in fact the case, what was most important? Well, in Philippians Paul emphasizes things like keeping one’s priorities straight, living ethically, and what he called “standing firm” even in the face of adversity. Okay. So far so good. But the foundation of this letter, the centeral theme if you will, is the idea of imitation. Near the end of chapter 3 Paul says, “Brothers and sisters, become imitators of me and watch those who live this way – you can use us as models.” (3:17) Which, as you’ve probably already figured out, brings us to our passage for today.

Now, first of all, I think this passage and especially this idea of imitating Christ is centeral to Paul’s theology and it’s vital for each of us to consider as we begin the long, slow process of healing the soul of this nation in the aftermath of the election.

Why? Well, consider Paul plea.  …if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort in love, any sharing in the Spirit, any sympathy, complete my joy by thinking the same way, by having the same love, and being united, and by agreeing with each other. 

Oh my goodness! Do we ever need to hear these words today. Paul is saying that if we could find any encouragement, or at least some semblance of comfort in love at all; if there’s at least a little bit of  sharing or any sympathy present in our lives or in the world, then joy will be complete.

Now, any is the key word here. Any is an indefinite pronoun and the word in Greek that’s used here is ti. But ti can also be used as an interrogative pronoun (who, when, where, etc.) Now, I think it’s imperative that we don’t let these multiple understanding of this tiny word get lost in translation. Paul is saying something even more profound than simply “is there any encouragement or comfort or sympathy left.” In essence, he’s saying who among you can infuse joy into the world by demonstrating encouragement in Christ, by bringing comfort to others in love, by sharing in the spirit, or by being empathetic toward the plight of all people.

And how do we do that? How do we “complete joy”? Well, Paul says, “…by thinking the same way, having the same love, being united, and agreeing with each other.

With this election over, my hope and my prayer is that we can unite, forgive, and extend grace to those on the other side of the fence, because finally, each of us, no matter where we fall on the political spectrum, stand in need of grace, forgiveness, and love.

These words ring so true as we face the overwhelming obstacles that lay before us as a nation and as a people. We’re facing a pandemic that continues to rage out-of-control. We’re living in a shattered economy. We’re ALL affected by racism. All of us. When one of God’s children is demeaned or oppressed, or made to feel “less-than” – we’re all demeaned and oppressed; and when racism happens, whether explicit or systemic, all of our joy is “less-than” complete.  

Paul goes on to say, “Don’t do anything for selfish purposes, but with humility think of others as better than yourselves. Instead of each person watching out for their own good, watch out for what is better for others.”

What a profound statement! With humility think of others as better than yourself. We’re in this mess because of hubris, the opposite of humility. We’re in this mess because we refused, as a people, to humble ourselves and put the needs of the other before our own.

We’re in this mess because we allowed ourselves to be divided, to be separated by ideology or race or party affiliation. Jesus once said that a house divided cannot stand. And he was right! I know he was right because we’re living with the consequences of being a divided nation each and every day.

But, here’s the Good News! We can find our way out of this mess. We can and we will if we walk hand in hand and work side by side, male and female, young and old, liberal and conservative, Democrat Republican and Independent, black and white and brown and every shade in-between. No matter what our religion or ethnicity or social status we must come together if our joy will ever, even come close, to becoming complete.

My friends, I invite you to take these words of Paul into your heart, process them in your mind, and live them out with your voice, and your hands and your feet, as we seek to be imitators of Christ’s kindness, and grace, and love beyond ourselves, and as we attempt to create a more just, and kind, and peace-filled world for all of us.

May it be so,

Amen & Amen

Do As I Say, Not As I Do

Matthew 23:1-12 (Common English Bible CEB)

Then Jesus spoke to the crowds and his disciples, “The legal experts and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat. Therefore, you must take care to do everything they say. But don’t do what they do. For they tie together heavy packs that are impossible to carry. They put them on the shoulders of others, but are unwilling to lift a finger to move them. Everything they do, they do to be noticed by others. They make extra-wide prayer bands for their arms and long tassels for their clothes. They love to sit in places of honor at banquets and in the synagogues. They love to be greeted with honor in the markets and to be addressed as ‘Rabbi.’ “But you shouldn’t be called Rabbi, because you have one teacher, and all of you are brothers and sisters. Don’t call anybody on earth your father, because you have one Father, who is heavenly. Don’t be called teacher, because Christ is your one teacher. But the one who is greatest among you will be your servant. All who lift themselves up will be brought low. But all who make themselves low will be lifted up.

Religion has always been connected with words. If you look at the history of religion throughout the ages and collected all the words associated with them, you would find volumes upon volumes of wisdom contained within the scriptures and prayers, the hymns, and the chants of many expressions of faith. Even religions that proport to be “wordless,” such as Taoism or Zen Buddhism, tend to have their own collections of words. [i] And this, in and of itself, is not necessarily a bad thing. Buddhism for example, teaches that words can be like fingers pointing to the moon; the challenge however, is not to confuse the finger with the moon. [ii] In other words, don’t let the words themselves become more important than the meaning behind them.

Now, I think, this pithy bit of wisdom unearths an issue that we face as contemporary Christians. As people of faith, and especially as pastors, we say all kinds of things that might be considered profound, perhaps even beautiful to our ear, but at the end of the day I think our religious words can come-off as elusive or even exclusive to people outside the church walls. Why? Because far too often we don’t practice what we preach. I think religious people, even well-intentioned religious people, like myself, say one thing but do another. We offer words of compassion and cry out for justice but when it comes down to it, when it comes down to “putting our money where our mouth is” we sometimes fall short.

Which brings us to Matthew. In our reading for today, Jesus sensed the urgency of the hour, and therefore, he didn’t hold back in this speech. When he spoke to the crowds, he observed that the religious leaders, the ones with so much book-learning about God, were so full of themselves and so proud of their position that they missed the main point of it all. And Jesus, as we’ve seen so many times in Matthew’s account, used this teaching moment to instruct his followers about the way they should live. He invited them to become humble servant-leaders and servant-teachers. [iii]  They were not to imitate the example they had seen in the Pharisees and scribes, but instead, they were to live-into the higher ideals of their faith.

So, what were these “higher ideals”? Well, Jesus says in our text for today, “The legal experts and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat. Therefore, you must take care to do everything they say. But don’t do what they do. For they tie together heavy packs that are impossible to carry. They put them on the shoulders of others, but are unwilling to lift a finger to move them.”

The downfall of the religious leaders was their hypocrisy. They said one thing and did another. They didn’t practice what they preached, right? They created interpretations of the law that were so burdensome that no one could keep them. The only way for the common person to follow the law then, to be righteous, to be considered clean and therefore worthy of temple worship, was to enrich the religious leaders. The poor had to grease the palms of the wealthy.

So, Jesus was basically saying to his followers, “They say all the right things. They put together long, eloquent strings of words touting liberation and shalom; they talk a good game about caring for the widows and orphans and giving alms to the poor. And these things you should do. However, “if you want to know what a person believes, watch his feet, not his mouth.” [iv]  The words coming out of the religious elites mouths didn’t match their actions. That’s why Jesus said, “do as they say, and not as they do.”

And this makes perfect sense to me. James, in his writings, held that a faith without works is a dead faith. And that was the essence of Jesus’ criticism. The Pharisees and the scribes didn’t practice a living faith. In his book by the same name, President Jimmy Carter said, “In the Christian tradition, the concept of faith has two interrelated meanings, both implying fidelity: confidence in being (God), and action based on firm belief.”[v] In both the words of the former president and the brother of Jesus, we see what’s been termed “a theology of praxis.” That is, a theological understanding that just words must be accompanied by just action. Or, as in the words of the liberation theologian Gustavo Gutierrez: “To be followers of Jesus requires that [we] walk with and be committed to the poor; when [we] do, [we] experience an encounter with the Lord who is simultaneously revealed and hidden in the faces of the poor”[vi]

As we come to this time of prayer and sacrament, I would like to invite you to ponder a couple of questions. Do we practice what we preach? Or, to be fair, Do we at least attempt to say what we’ll do and then do what we said? Do we have fidelity to both being and action? Do we take the time and effort to search for the face of Jesus in the faces of the poor, the hungry, the marginalized, or the lonely? In other words, is our faith a living faith, a faith that produces fruit, a faith that moves us, all of us, toward a more just world, and cleaner world, and kinder world?

These are the questions we must consider.

Amen & Amen.

[i] Alan Brehm Do As We Say (www.thewakingdreamer.com) 2011

[ii] Paul F. Knitter, Without Buddha I Could Not Be A Christian, on pg. 61, Knitter says, “Fingers serve to point us in the direction of that mystery, which can be as real in our experience as it is beyond our words and understanding.”

[iii] Katheryn Matthews What Should I Do (www.ucc.org/samuel/sermon/seeds) 2020

[iv] Richard Swanson Provoking the Gospel of Matthew (Cleveland: The Pilgrim Press, 2007) Pg. 255

[v] Jimmy Carter Living Faith (New York: Random House, 1998) pg. 4

[vi]  Gustavo Gutierrez, We Drink from Our Own Wells (Maryknoll/ Melbourne: Orbis Books/ Dove Communications, 1984), pgs. 37-38.

Being Faithful

The Most Important Command (From The Message by Eugene Peterson)

When the Pharisees heard how he had bested the Sadducees, they gathered their forces for an assault. One of their religion scholars spoke for them, posing a question they hoped would show him up: “Teacher, which command in God’s Law is the most important?” Jesus said, “‘Love God with all your passion and prayer and intelligence.’ This is the most important, the first on any list. But there is a second to set alongside it: ‘Love others as well as you love yourself.’ These two commands are pegs; everything in God’s Law and the Prophets hangs from them.”

Today’s Message: Being Faithful

What’s it all about? What’s Christianity all about? What does it mean to be a person of faith? These are the questions that I would like to address today as we explore the very core, the very essence, of what it means to be faithful.

Now, to begin, I think you all know that within the wider Church there’s exists this assumption that being a Christian entails accepting a certain set of beliefs without question. And while that may sound harmless, living an unexamined faith has led to many of the darkest moments in our church’s history.  Think about the Crusades, or the Spanish Inquisition, or the Salem Witch Trials, not to mention the rise of fundamentalism in our time. All of these stains on the faith, I would argue, have come from a long, slow advocation of rational thought in favor of a mindless, zelotious type of religious expression. In other words, when people stop thinking and asking and discerning; when the people of faith forget Jesus’ description of the core value of what it means to be a Christian, when we forget to love God, as Peterson so eloquently states it in today version of this text; with all of our “passion and prayer and intelligence” and to love others “as well as we love ourselves” …that’s when things begin to go off the rails.

Here’s an example of what I mean. Marcus Borg shared the following story. A small town businessman from a remote community in the mountains of North Carolina went to one of the larger cities, and there, for the first time in his life, he saw an ice-making machine. Now, machines that could make artificial ice were a recent invention; he thought this was wonderful because it meant you could have ice all summer long. So he returned to his small community in the mountains of North Carolina told his Baptist church about this great new invention. Within a month, however, the church had split into ice and no-ice Baptists. The theological issue in this case being is it a violation of the natural order established by God to make ice out of season. If God had wanted us to have ice in the summertime, God would have raised the freezing temperature of water seems to have been the argument.[i]

Now, the point of this example is that Christians, and maybe even Protestant Christians in particular, have been very concerned about believing the right things: infant baptism versus adult baptism, who can take communion and who cannot, the place of woman or LGBTQ folks within the Church, and so forth and so on. So… like I said before, we sometimes we make being a person of faith very complicated, as if it’s about getting our doctrines right and then excluding anyone who disagrees or hold a differing set of values.  

Being faithful, however, is actually very simple, even breathtakingly simple. Again, borrowing from the theology of Borg, I would like to offer you three statements to explain what I mean.

First of all, being faithful is about loving God and loving what God loves. So, what does it mean to “love what God loves.” John 3:16, one of the most beloved of all the Scriptures, says, “For God so loved the world….” God loves the world, not just me, not just you and me, not just Christians, not even just human beings, but the whole of creation. And, of course, this is also the central point of the Genesis story of creation. After each day in that six-day creation story, we are told “God saw that it was good,” and at the very end, “God saw that it was very good.” Now, of course, God doesn’t love the world simply as it is. God has, to use a phrase from Robert Frost, “a lover’s quarrel with the world.” God loves this world and wills that it be a better and more just place for all people and all of creation.

The second statement. Being faithful is about becoming the kind of person who can love God and love what God loves. We all stand in need of transformation. The process of growing up does not predispose us to that deep love of God and that deep love of what God loves. The growing up process teaches us to be concerned about ourselves. This happens to all of us. It’s cultural. It’s human nature.

But faith offers something entirely different. Faith is a counterbalance to that innate tendency. What faith offers each of us is a way or a path that puts the other before self. But this transformation doesn’t just happen. It involves practice. The process of becoming more and more deeply centered in God, and centered in God as known decisively in Jesus, this requires an attention to our connection with God. In some ways our connection with God is like a human relationship. How does a human relationship deepen and grow? It deepens and grows by paying attention to it, by spending time in it, by being present to it. And so it is with our connection with God and this process of becoming more and more deeply centered in the Sacred. A centering that happens through both our personal and traditional practices of faith. Worship is the most important collective practice in the process and prayer the most widely used individual practice. In other words, prayer and worship are vehicles through which we deepen our connection with the Sacred.

Okay. The third statement. Being faithful is about being part of a community of transformation. It’s about living within the tradition and within a faith community as a means to an end. (that end being transformation) And this idea dovetails on what I’ve been saying thus far. Those of us who live in western culture grew up in a society that holds values and norms that are very, very different from the central theme of the Bible; the theme of loving God and neighbor. Society tells us to look out for number one. Society tells us we’re privileged and that we deserve more no matter the cost to anyone else or anything else. This was our first socialization and our primary formation. Or at the very least, if you grew up in the church, it was a parallel formation. But here’s the counterbalance to this way of thinking. Participating in a faith community, and I mean really participating in church, is about becoming involved in a process of re-socialization, or re-formation, so that our sense of ourselves, our identity, is shaped by our involvement in the  community. Transformative community is key to overcoming the self-centeredness that we see all around us and leads us to begin living into the kind of faith that Jesus inspires.[ii]

Now, let me conclude today with one more way of thinking about these “two great relationships”[iii] of loving God and neighbor. Being faithful is about having a passion for justice. It seems to me, that when we take a deep, long look at what Jesus said and what he did, over and over again in the gospels, we discover his passion for justice. I heard Cornel West say once, “Never forget that justice is what love looks like in public.”[iv] Justice is what love looks like in public. You know, justice is what love looks like because justice is the action part of love. Justice is love with “skin on.” Justice is the working part of seeking a just world for all. Having a passion for justice means moving beyond experiencing God’s love only as sentimentality, by moving into the realm of demonstrating God’s love for humanity and creation though action. My friends, we demonstrate God’s love when we give to organizations and missions that reach out to the most vulnerable; we share in Christ’s passion for justice when we use our voice and our vote to lift the downtrodden and the oppressed and those on the margins of society to a place of dignity, security, and prosperity; and we indwell the very Spirit of God when we come to view the world thru the lens of the other before self. A passion for justice means coming to the realization that we’re all, all of creation and all of humanity, black, brown, and white, …that we’re finally, all, interconnected at the very core of our being. The Spark of the Divine is in and within everything and everyone. There is no person who is less in the eyes of God and there is not a single creature, not even a mosquito, who is invaluable to the circle of life. We finally ALL count!   

My friends, my prayer for all of us this week, and especially as the pandemic rages on and as this election draws near …my prayer is that our understanding of love, that our “passion and prayer and intelligence” will be lived out, both individually and in community, passionately pursuing, a just world for all.

May it be so for you and for me.

Amen and Amen.  

[i] Marcus Borg What’s Christianity All About (www.Day1.org) 2011

[ii] Ibid Borg

[iii] Marcus Borg The Heart of Christianity (New York: Harper Collins Publishing) 2004

[iv] Quote found at (www.ucc.org/samuel/sermon/seeds) October 25, 2020

Cat Juggling

Galatians 6:1-10 (from The Message but using more inclusive language)

Live creatively, friends. If someone falls into sin, forgivingly restore them, saving your critical comments for yourself. You might be needing forgiveness before the day’s out. Stoop down and reach out to those who are oppressed. Share their burdens, and so complete Christ’s law. If you think you are too good for that, you are badly deceived. Make a careful exploration of who you are and the work you have been given, and then sink yourself into that. Don’t be impressed with yourself. Don’t compare yourself with others. Each of you must take responsibility for doing the creative best you can with your own life. Be very sure now, you who have been trained to a self-sufficient maturity, that you enter into a generous common life with those who have trained you, sharing all the good things that you have and experience. Don’t be misled: No one makes a fool of God. What a person plants, they will harvest. The person who plants selfishness, ignoring the needs of others—ignoring God!—harvests a crop of weeds. All they’ll have to show for their life is weeds! But the one who plants in response to God, letting God’s Spirit do the growth work within them, harvests a crop of real life, eternal life. So let’s not allow ourselves to get fatigued doing good. At the right time we will harvest a good crop if we don’t give up, or quit. Right now, therefore, every time we get the chance, let us work for the benefit of all, starting with the people closest to us in the community of faith.

Rev. Lillian Daniel, who, by the way, happens to be pastor to two of my kids, shared the following story. “When I was a child,” she writes, “my mother would proudly tell people, ‘Lillian is like a little cat. Whichever way you throw her, she always lands on her feet.’ She meant it as a compliment. We had chaotic lives, moving from one country to another, my father in and out of war zones. And that was just what was visible from the outside. Not all our family’s war zones were in another country. What my mother meant was that I could take it. I may have been little but I was tough, agile, canny and cunning, like a stray cat that always lands on its feet.”

Lillian goes on to say, “[But] later, as an adult, I began to question the metaphor. What kind of person throws a cat? And furthermore, what kind of person stands by to watch it happen? Picture a poor cat flailing about in the air – thrown against its will, furry limbs thrashing about in the sky, scrambling in the nothingness for a foothold that does not exist. Finally, upon descent, all four paws find their way down through gravity at just the right moment to have the padding scraped off them by the unforgiving concrete below.

What kind of person, after watching all that, responds by congratulating the cat on its graceful landing? How about this for an alternative? Stop throwing cats. And if you see one about to get thrown, step in and stop it. And if you hear one crying out for help, don’t listen in dispassionately like you’re a scientist performing an experiment on resilience, waiting to see how things turn out. Step up and stop the experiment. By the time you’re congratulating a cat for landing on its feet, you have missed the chance to do something real. You can’t go back and change that. Just be on the lookout for the next cat flailing in the air. And next time, try to help.[i]

Now, I this devotional message (which I lovingly refer to as the “cat juggling” story) is poignant both in terms of Paul’s message that we just heard and as we continue to live through an era of distraction, defamation, and disinformation.

In Paul’s letter to the church in Galatia, he invites us to make a careful exploration of who we are within this thing we call church. Paul goes on to then invite us to spend some time discerning this “calling” …he refers to it as “the work we’ve been given.” And finally, Paul encourages us to go and do that work!

Seems pretty simple, right? We’ve all been called, led, challenged, invited (choose your verb here) …we’ve all been drawn to these congregations in some way and we’ve been discerning our individual roles within these communities ever since. Now, some of us are called to various leadership roles within the church; president/moderator, treasurer, board member, so forth and so on. Others are led to share their talents; music or reading scripture or teaching Sunday School just to name a few. Other people feel the need to attend to the spiritual or emotional welfare of others and some of us are called to oversee the financial end of things or to encourage others in their faith journey. All of these things, and so many more, are what makes our churches go. The people, all of you, are the engine powering the mission and ministry of Cable and Delta United Churches of Christ. Make no mistake about it. All of this works because each of you have answered your calling to participate in the present Realm of God here on earth.

But even so, even with all of that being said, this is where Paul gives us pause, a bit of warning one might say. He writes, “Don’t be impressed with yourself. Don’t compare yourself with others. Each of you must take responsibility for doing the creative best you can with your own life.” The “creative best” you can. I like that! God doesn’t call us to be mindless robots. God didn’t infuse humankind with reason for no reason. We’re called, my friends, to creatively go about doing our best as we live-into this calling to be welcoming, inclusive, compassionate, and forgiving individuals …and as congregations.

Now, Paul’s warning brings us back around to the cat juggling illustration that I alluded to earlier. Remember that Lillian Daniel questioned the “humane-ness” of throwing cats just to see if they land on their feet. And rightly so. But I think the metaphor goes a little deeper. In our nation today, and unfortunately, within too many of our faith communities, there is an acceptance of morally questionable stances on social issues.

Take this issue of lying for example. Emmanuel Kant, arguably the greatest moral philosopher of the modern era, asserted that it’s never okay to lie. Never! Why? Because the consequences of lying outweigh any hurt feelings or avoided argument that may ensue. Lying however, or “alternative facts” as lying has come to be known, has become the norm rather than the exception. And the problem with a lie is that if you tell it enough, people will start to believe it.

The best and most extreme example of this is the Q Anon conspiracy theory. If you haven’t heard of this one, hold on to you hat. It alleges that, through a secret source called Q, there’s a liberal cabal who runs an international human trafficking ring, they’re pedophiles, cannibals, and they’re spreading the Corona Virus using 5G. You can’t make this stuff up. Well, actually, you can, because this is of course nothing but a load of bull. But if you tell a lie over and over and over again, maybe some of it will stick. Now, I’m going to write more about Q Anon and the sociological and theological damage it has the potential to cause in my upcoming November newsletter article, but for now it’s suffice to say that none of it is true. None of it! Q Anon is completely off-the-rails! But some of our neighbors, some of our friends, perhaps even some of our fellow Christians have fallen for this nonsense.

So, what do we do? Do we correct them with the truth? Yes. But are we to shame them? No. Are we to toss them in the air to see if they land on their feet” of course not. If we wouldn’t be so inhumane to a cat, why in the world would we defame or denigrate our fellow human being, our friend or family member, our fellow followers of Christ? That’s simply not what we’re called to do as people of faith.

But what we are called to do is employ our “creative best.” I mean, when the fervor of this election season becomes a part of history, those fooled will begin to see Q Anon for what it really is: a lie. Our task then, is to welcome them back into the fold. Lovingkindness goes further than shame, always.

Paul says in our lesson for today, “If someone falls into sin, forgivingly restore him, saving your critical comments for yourself. You might be needing forgiveness before the day’s out. Stoop down and reach out to those who are oppressed. Share their burdens, and so complete Christ’s law.”

So as to complete Christ’s law. That’s powerful. That’s the Truth. That’s the essence of, and the burden of, being in relationship with others. Christ’s law is one of compassion, grace, and kindness. It’s about reaching out a hand to those who are down and forgiving those who have hurt you. “If you think you are too good for that,” Paul says, “you’re badly deceived.”

Let me leave you with one final thought today. The 14th century theologian, Meister Eckhart, once said, “Apprehend God in all things, for God is in all things. Every single creature is full of God and a book about God. Every creature is a word of God. If I spent enough time with the tiniest creature–even a caterpillar–I would never have to prepare a sermon. So full of God is every creature.”[ii]

God is in all of our fellow human beings, and cats, and caterpillars for that matter, and all of these things have worth and are valued in the Realm of God. This is such an important concept to remember as we elect our next president, as we tackle the huge problem of racial injustice, which include things like the economy, jobs, and community policing. And these words from Eckhart still ring true as we take on the ominous task of addressing global climate change. “So, full of God is every creature.” My friends, if we approach the world with this mindset, we will have taken the first step in living-into Christ’s law. We will be living, loving examples of Truth.

May it be so for you and for me.

Amen & Amen.

[i] Lillian Daniel Don’t Congratulate a Cat on its Landing (www.daillydevotional@ucc.org) Oct. 13,2020

[ii] Quote found at (www.ucc,org/samuel/sermon/seeds) October, 18, 2020

Civilized Civilization

Matthew 21:33-41- Parable of the tenant farmers

[Listen to another parable…] There was a landowner who planted a vineyard. He put a fence around it, dug a winepress in it, and built a tower. Then he rented it to tenant farmers and took a trip. When it was time for harvest, he sent his servants to the tenant farmers to collect his fruit. But the tenant farmers grabbed his servants. They beat some of them, and some of them they killed. Some of them they stoned to death. “Again he sent other servants, more than the first group. They treated them in the same way.  Finally he sent his son to them. ‘They will respect my son,’ he said. “But when the tenant farmers saw the son, they said to each other, ‘This is the heir. Come on, let’s kill him and we’ll have his inheritance.’ They grabbed him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him.

[Jesus asked the Chief Priests and the Pharisees] “When the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenant farmers?” They said, “He will totally destroy those wicked farmers and rent the vineyard to other tenant farmers who will give him the fruit when it’s ready.”

What Kind of Civilization Do We Desire?

What Kind of Civilization Do We Desire? Sociologist Margaret Mead was once asked by a student what she considered to be the first sign of civilization in a culture. So she, as all good teachers do, reversed the question back to her students. They offered examples of when humans formed tools like shovels, fish hooks, cookware, and grinding stones. She listened patiently and then said, “These were important advancements, but they do not speak to civilization, our ability to live together in authentic community.” She went on to say that she considered the first signs of civilization to be a healed thighbone. Mead explained that in the animal world if you break your leg, you die. You can’t run from danger. You can’t find food. You can’t access water. You become the prey. No animal survives a broken leg long enough for the bone to heal. A broken thighbone that had healed suggests that someone had taken the time to stay with the fallen one, had bound and treated the wound, had carried that person to safety, and had cared for that person during recovery. Healing someone through difficulty is the beginning of a civilized culture. [i]

Our Gospel lesson for today gives us a glimpse into the nature of culture in Jesus’ day and what changes would be necessary to create the kind of civilization God desired. It’s a parable about a landowner and his relationship with his tenant farmers. When it came time to collect his share of the produce, he sent servants, twice, but the tenants beat them and threw them out. Finally, the landlord sent his son, and the tenants killed him. When Jesus asked what the owner of such a vineyard would do to the tenant farmers, the Jewish leaders answered in a way that was entirely expected. They said the landowner will take his vengeance on the tenants by killing them. An eye for an eye type of thinking.

Let’s pause here for a moment and think about that response. Is this answer problematic for anyone else? Well, it was for Jesus because he went on to declare that the power the Pharisees enjoyed would be taken away and “…given, to a people who produce fruit.” (v.43) Which, of course, didn’t sit well with them.

So, considering his response, I don’t think the problem here is with the text itself. The problem we must address is the way the Church has traditionally interpreted this parable. We have tended to view it as an allegory for the way God works—the landlord is God, the vineyard is Israel, the tenants are the Jewish leaders, the servants are the prophets, and the son is Jesus. Okay. That makes sense, right?

But if we read the parable that way, it portrays God as an absentee landlord who makes unjust demands of those he has put in charge of his vineyard. And in this scenario, God apparently doesn’t know very much about how to be an absentee landlord, because he sent his servants, twice, to collect the rent without any protection. And in the end, the Pharisees shared a view of God that reflected their cultural bias. They offered a view a vengeful god, represented by the landowner, who was within his rights to take revenge on those who had opposed him. [ii] 

Now, I don’t know about you, but this allegorical interpretation, this image of a vengeful God, doesn’t work for me. I mean, contextually speaking, it’s not at all consistent with the image of God that Jesus paints all throughout the gospels. He paints the image of a God who is kind and generous toward the just and the unjust alike. [iii]  Jesus consistently shares an image of God as liberator, he shares a God who desires peace and wholeness for all people; Jesus’ God is, in the ends, a God of justice.

So, if that’s the case, what’s really going on here? What are we meant to “take-away” of this parable?

Well, I have already illuded to the fact that I believe Jesus is telling us this story to illustrate something about the civilization in which he was living. I mean, in order to gain a deeper understanding of this parable, we must first understand the landlords in that age. You see, they would take such a large cut of the profit that the tenant farmers in their employ were left with barely enough to keep their families alive. Jesus shared this parable with the Pharisees to hold them accountable for mistreating the poor in their civilization.

So, on a deeper level then, this passage isn’t about vengeance at all, rather it’s about Justice. It’s about the present Realm of God, a Realm that operates with a different set of rules. It operates on the basis of God’s grace and unconditional love rather than hatred or exclusion. God’s Realm operates from a place of unfailing mercy and forgiveness rather than the specter of God’s vengeance.

And yes, you can find places in the Bible, Romans 12 for example, where the Apostle offers a “vengeance is mine says the Lord” kind of thinking. But even in Paul’s writings, context matters. I say that because he isn’t advocating for God wiping out all one’s enemies. We know this because the very next line in his letter to the Romans is, “…if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him a drink.”

And this is important stuff! It’s important because how we interpretate the Bible, how we view the nature of God, and how we integrate that interpretation and perspective into our lives and relationships determines what kind of civilization we desire to create.

I mean, do we want to live in a civilization where we walk past the wounded stranger, like the priest and the Levite in Luke’s Good Samaritan story or will we tend to the “broken thighbone” of our neighbor, no matter where that neighbor comes from or how that neighbor worships, or who that neighbor loves? Do we want to live in a civilization where “might makes right” even if the “mighty” version of “right” is unjust? Do we want to live in a civilization that cages children because they come from the wrong side of some human-drawn line on a map or will we heed the words of Jesus and welcome the stranger, offer hospitality to the foreigner; Jesus said, “…let the children come to me and do not hinder them?” Do we want to live in a civilization where one race is privileged while all others are treated as inferior or will we risk advocating for racial justice? Do we want to live in a civilization that consumes, and consumes, and consumes all of Mother Earth’s natural resources, even at the cost of our own existence or will we take climate change, and the resulting hurricanes and wildfires and pandemics, seriously? My friends, so much of our life and our faith finally boils down to this single question: What kind of civilization do we desire? Let us ponder that question and hold it in our hearts.

Amen and Amen.

[i] Cameron Trimble Signs of Civilization. Plotting Faith: An (Almost) Daily Devotional from The Center for Progressive Renewal  (www.cameron@convrganceus.org) Nov. 29, 2020

[ii] Alan Brehm. Vengeance? (www.thewakingdreamer.blogspot.com) 2011

[iii] For this viewpoint, see Barbara Reid, “Violent Endings in Matthew’s Parables and Christian Non-violence,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 66 (2004): 252-53, 255. 

No Fair!

Pentecost 16 – September 20, 2020 – Just Peace Sunday

Does this parable seem strange to anyone else? I know, most of us have been conditioned to accept all of Jesus’ teachings at face value, or at the very least, to incorporate them into our consciousness after deeper consideration, but this one might challenge that way of thinking. It’s just strange. It doesn’t sound like “Jesus the champion of justice” to which we’ve become accustomed. It just doesn’t seem fair. Shouldn’t the guys that worked all day get more pay than the ones who worked for only one hour? What’s going on here?

I remember being very confused and disturbed by this parable the first time I heard it. And it turns out I wasn’t alone. In a Bible Study that a friend and I were leading about 20 years ago, we asked the group to let us know what passages of scripture challenged them the most, and then we would prepare a study-session those passages. Remarkably, out of the ten or twelve responses we got, three of them asked about on this parable. And to a person, they chose this one because it seemed, “so unfair.” And that, in a nutshell, is the challenge of this parable. Fairness.

It seems to me, however, that the challenge that this passage presents exposes something about the culture in which we live.  I think we may be suffering from an over-developed sense fairness. What does that mean? Well, as a people, we tend to define fairness in terms of merit. In other words, we decide if something is fair or unfair based upon whether a group or an individual deserves what they received.

Here’s what I mean. There was a meme on Facebook sometime back that really illustrated this well. The first frame showed two people, one tall and one short, standing by a fence. The tall one could see over and the short one could not. The second frame was labeled “Fairness” and each person was standing on a box. The tall person could still see over the fence, but it still wasn’t high enough for the short person. The final frame was labeled “Justice” In this scene the tall person had no box and the short person stood on both boxes and, like the tall person, could now see over the fence. The point here is that fairness isn’t always just and that justice cannot always be accomplished through fairness.  

Another example. Little Johnny runs to his mother and says, “Timmy hit me in the arm,” to which she responds, “what’d you do to deserve it?” This is an example of a response based on fairness. Timmy wouldn’t have punched Johnny without a good reason, right. The flip side of that coin, however, is justice. The mother’s response if it came from a place of justice might go something like, “Timmy, don’t hit your brother, hitting is wrong.” And please don’t misunderstand me here, it’s not that fairness isn’t a good thing, sometimes, but fairness and justice are not the same thing. We think we sometimes confuse the two.

In our gospel lesson for today, Jesus shared a parable about a vineyard owner who paid his workers on the principle of justice rather than on one based upon merit. Theologically speaking, this story illustrates what Matthew called “the Kingdom of Heaven.” Now, a grandiose phrase like Kingdom of Heaven might lead us to think that about some otherworldly realm, but that’s simply not the case. In Matthew’s Gospel, the Kingdom of Heaven isn’t a place, rather it’s a way of living, in this world, in the here and now. It’s a way of living that puts God’s justice and peace and liberation for all people into practice. It’s finally the goal toward which everything in Scripture is moving. It’s the hope that continues to inspire our faith as we seek to live as the people of God.[i]

Having said that, however, I think we need to circle back around to my first thought on this passage and consider the cultural “strangeness” of seeking such an existence as it relates to fairness.  I mean, the vineyard owner in today’s text realized that his first hiring of day-laborers wasn’t going to be enough, so he hired more people to harvest grapes a various times during the day. So far so good. But when it came time to pay them, this is where things got a little strange. The vineyard owner paid all of them the same wage! Those who worked only 1 hour get a full day’s wage, just like those who put in the full 12 hours! [ii] 

And again, this makes no sense if we only view life from a perspective of fairness. But if we were to expand our perspective to include justice, then the meaning of this passage begins to emerge. The story of the workers in the vineyard insists that the kingdom God envisions is a realm in which God’s justice and peace and liberation is for all people and, here’s the key, we cannot earn it. God’s grace isn’t based on a merit system. Grace is a free gift offered to everyone. Whether we’ve been at this faith thing for a long time or we’re just getting started, God’s grace is a gift. We don’t have to be better in order to ensure that God loves us, because God loves us completely already.  It’s like Desmond Tutu said, “There is nothing we can do to make God love us more” and “there is nothing we can do to make God love us less.”[iii] 

My friends, God loves us. And we are all invited to express our gratitude for that love though acts of lovingkindness, through caring about others and creation, and by sharing hope, the hope that this kingdom, that God’s Realm here on earth, may someday become a just place for all.  May it be so. Amen & amen.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                             

[i] Jürgen Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ, 97-99.

[ii] Alan Brehm. Nothing to Earn (www.thewakingdreamer.com) 2011

[iii] Desmond Tutu, God Has a Dream: A Vision of Hope for Our Time, 32