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An Occasional Blog by The Reverend Grace P. Burson, Holy Trinity's Associate Transitional Pastor
In this holiday season, we hear a lot about welcome. The essence of the Christmas story is about God welcoming humanity: by taking on our flesh, joining God to humankind, God welcomes us into God’s divine identity. But welcome is also enacted in the story of a poor family looking for lodging in a crowded Bethlehem: after being turned away because “there was no room in the inn,” they bed down with the animals, who witness the birth of Imanuel, God with us. When there was no room in the conventional place for visitors, the poor and humble (and nonhuman!) made room for the Christ Child. Likewise, the shepherds were welcomed as visitors to Jesus’ crib alongside powerful wise men.
As a community that follows Jesus, welcome is one of our duties. And in recent weeks, as I’ve gotten my head around the knowledge that my time here at Holy Trinity is rapidly running out, I’ve noticed even more clearly the ways in which this congregation welcomes each other and helps each other out.
On a recent Sunday, young boys from three different families helped bring up the offertory. Multiple people pitched in to cover for an acolyte who couldn’t be at church, so that the service would run smoothly. A member of the confirmation class was at the sound board, learning how to run it from an experienced volunteer. New families had signed up to participate in the Christmas pageant.
This is the way a church works when people feel welcome. In order for folks of all ages to stick their necks out and try something new, they must be confident that their gifts are welcomed, their questions are welcomed, and their efforts are welcomed – that even if they don’t always know where to go or what to do, the people who do know those things will be glad that they tried and will help them learn the ropes so that they can participate fully in ministry.
It makes my heart glad when I see these signs of welcome. And Holy Trinity is pretty good at welcoming newcomers to worship, too. Our ministry of welcome is also lived out in our deepening relationship with Imanuel Indonesian Lutheran Church and our ongoing advocacy for all our neighbors on the Seacoast who wish to live in this country in peace.
Of course, there are always more ways we can live into this ministry of welcome. Soon after Christmas, Holy Trinity will welcome a new pastor. How will you demonstrate that welcome? And how, this Advent and Christmas, can you welcome those whom Christ would welcome – the lonely, the hungry, the sick and the suffering – and show them the hospitality of God?
In God’s peace,
Holy Trinity, Newington
Advent I, Year B
December 3, 2017
O, that you would tear open the heavens and come down!
This line in German (O Heiland, reiss die Himmel auf) is the name of a chorale tune, set by Johannes Brahms as a gorgeous motet, and it’s tempting to just play that piece of music and sit down again. But that would be cheating.
The image of God tearing open the heavens is one that may cause fear or joy, depending on how you hear it. For some, it may be like the clouds parting at the end of a storm, when light shines down and we know that we are safe, the danger is over. For others, it may be a terrifying moment when all our protections are stripped away and we find ourselves judged and found wanting.
The writer of Isaiah himself seems to move from one perspective to the other over the course of today’s reading. At the beginning, he is begging God to come down, to make the mountains quake at God’s presence. He wants to witness mighty deeds like those of old, so that all the nations will know that Israel’s God is the true God.
By the end of the passage, though, he seems to have reversed course, or at least to be having doubts; his mind has come to rest on the frailty and sin of humanity, and his petition to God has turned from “come down and show yourself!” to “Do not be exceedingly angry, and do not remember iniquity forever.” He has been struck by the yawning gap between God’s righteousness and his own sinfulness, and the sinfulness of all the people.
In fact, the readings this morning are full of gaps, beginning with that same opening phrase: what is God tearing open the heavens, if not the creation of a gap in our usual reality, a literal hole in the sky, a rending of the fabric of the cosmos to allow God’s presence to be known? When the prophet says to God, “you did awesome deeds that we did not expect”, he is drawing attention to the gap between our expectations and what God is capable of. And when he laments, “you have hidden your face from us,” he is acknowledging the distance, the gap, created between God and humanity by our sin – a chasm that he begs God to bridge by tearing that gap in the heavens, even as he wonders whether he would be able to stand the consequences.
The theme emerges in many of the same ways in the Gospel reading from Mark. This passage is the conclusion to an extensive speech in which Jesus predicts the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple, which took place in 70 AD. The community for which Mark wrote his Gospel was struggling profoundly with this reality, which had blown a huge hole – a yawning gap – in their understanding of what it meant for them to be God’s people. It was a rupture in the very fabric of history, after which nothing would ever be the same again.
And Jesus’ response to this cataclysm, as narrated in Mark’s Gospel, is not terribly reassuring. He doesn’t tell his listeners that everything will be all right, that God will fix it all and make it better than before. He tells them, in fact, that the opening of this gap is merely the prelude to the opening of even bigger and scarier gaps, between their present reality and the coming reign of God: “the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.” And since nobody but God knows when it’s coming, the only way to know what’s happening is to be vigilant, to keep awake.
Advent is a time of gaps. It is a time when we are living in at least four time frames simultaneously: the prophets, longing for the coming of the Messiah; Jesus, predicting the coming reign of God; our present reality; and the unknown future. The gaps between those times are big enough to fall into. Jesus’ words, and the words of the prophets, and our own words here and now in worship, are like signals being sent from mountaintop to mountaintop, across the deep gorges and chasms below. Much can get lost in translation.
Advent reveals the yawning gaps in our own lives. There are so many places where we see emptiness, rending, separation. The gaps between the hopes and plans of our younger selves, and our lives as they are now. The gaps left in our hearts and at our holiday tables by those whom we have lost, or from whom we are estranged. The gaps between the relentless, gaudy, fake cheer of the commercial holiday season, and the words and deeds of Jesus, the God who came among us in poverty and humility. The gaps between rich and poor, between the genders and the races, between the proud and the humble: the gaps between how we feel the world should be, and how it actually is.
What do we do with these gaps? How, to borrow a phrase from the disembodied voice on the London Tube, do we “mind the gaps” in Advent?
Our scriptures for today, at the same time that they are revealing the gaps, also point the way toward navigating them. And the first thing to do is to acknowledge that they are there: not trying to jump over them too quickly, sitting with them in full knowledge that they are probably painful and distressing. Jesus doesn’t try to downplay or paper over the gaps. He is very frank about the changes that are coming and the suffering that will result. Isaiah, likewise, is open about his emotional conflicts, both welcoming and dreading God’s advent on earth.
Jesus encourages us to keep awake. When you’re talking about gaps, this is wise advice. It’s hard to avoid the pitfalls if you’re not alert (as anyone who has tripped getting off of a train can attest). But there’s a deeper meaning to this call to keep awake, as well. It means that even when we feel overwhelmed, like the gaps are spreading and swallowing us up, like there can be no hope of things ever being different, we are still encouraged to keep our eyes open, to look around us, to find signs that God is at work in the world, despite the seeming hopelessness of everything and the temptation to cry aloud (with the prophet) for it all just to be torn down.
Isaiah’s response is, I think, still more interesting. It is from this passage that we get the famous image of God as the potter and ourselves as the clay; as the prophet laments the increasing gap between God’s righteousness and the people’s iniquity, and how it has caused God’s face to be hidden from them, he reminds himself that nevertheless, they are the work of God’s hands, the clay being shaped by God on the potter’s wheel of life.
Not only is this a deeply hopeful message – that God’s sure hands are shaping us, and will continue to do so, even when we mess up and it seems like everything is going wrong – it also speaks to the image of the gap. Because if the pot is finished, if it’s been fired, and something happens to strain it to the breaking point, then – well, it breaks. You’ve got a cracked, useless piece of pottery – another gap.
But if the clay is still on the wheel being shaped, there’s still hope. Unfired clay is malleable. It can change. If a gap needs to be bridged, perhaps a piece can be stretched out and across that gap, and bring the two sides back together.
Perhaps this is an invitation not to rush Advent too much, not to hurry to be finished, but rather to stay with the clay even as it is ugly and unformed and (let's face is) kind of slimy and unappealing. There is much to be said for remaining unfinished, ready to be shaped into whatever form God needs us to be.
This image of the clay should not be simplified too much. The gaps of Advent are too real, and too messy, to be easily bridged. Much of what God is calling us to do in this season is simply to be, to be present, to be aware, to acknowledge what is, and not run from it in panic, but simply look for where God is acting.
But when we find God acting, we find hope. We find the Son of Man sending out his angels to gather the elect, we find Paul assuring the Corinthians of God’s strengthening them to be blameless, we find Isaiah reminding us (and God!) of God’s past righteous deeds and offering the lovely and rich image of the potter.
The gaps are still there, and Advent tells the truth of them. May we, with God’s help, mind the gaps this Advent, and still find hope.Amen.
It’s been quite the couple of weeks at Holy Trinity, with the twin anniversary celebrations of the Reformation and the parish’s founding, followed by All Saints’ Sunday.
As we’ve talked with the Confirmation class about the Ninety-Five Theses that kicked off the Reformation five hundred years ago, we’ve taken pains to emphasize that the word “thesis” at the time (and still, in scientific terminology) didn’t mean “an assertion meant to be taken as fact” but rather “a starting point for discussion”. Luther didn’t want to start the Protestant Reformation; he wanted to have an honest debate. He was willing to be persuaded that he was wrong, if his opponents could use arguments that convinced him.
One suggestion that I saw floating around as people were preparing to celebrate the “Reformation 500” anniversary, was to put out pads of Post-It notes and have people write on them their hopes for and challenges to the church for the next 500 years, and stick them to the doors of the building, the way Luther (supposedly) did with the Ninety-Five Theses.
Amid everything else that was going on, that particular activity didn’t end up happening at Holy Trinity (although somebody did print out a copy of the original 95 and Scotch-tape it to the back door!), but I would still love to know what you might write on a note and stick to the front door of the church.
What conversation are we not having? What genuine, honest debate do you want to have with your fellow Christians? How do you think the church will need to change – to be reformed once again – to meet the needs of the world, and bring the Good News to those who long to hear it, in the next 500 years?
I’d love to hear your versions of the Ninety-Five Theses! Send me an email (or comment on this article when it goes up on the church blog) with your thoughts! And to start things off, here are some of mine (remember, these are starting points for debate, not intended as statements of fact!):
Let the conversation – and the reformation – begin!
It may be helpful to read this sermon with a copy of ELW at hand, open to Hymn 422.Holy Trinity, Newington
All Saints’ Sunday, Year A
November 5, 2017
O may thy soldiers, faithful, true, and bold,
Fight as the saints who nobly fought of old,
And win, with them, the victor’s crown of gold:
This is the verse that was left out of "For All the Saints," today's opening hymn, in the most recent version of the hymnal.The question of how to handle violent and military imagery in our hymns and in our scripture has been a vexed one for quite a while. It is inarguably true that many of the hymns were written in and for a culture that saw nothing wrong with converting people to Christianity at the point of a sword, and that many of the scriptures have been used for equally problematic ends over the course of history.
But to go to the opposite extreme – to eliminate all of the language of warfare from our religious language on principle – seems to me to fail to reckon with reality on several levels. (As my favorite theologian, my mother, likes to say, it’s fine to tell children that there are no monsters under the bed; but only if there are, in fact, no monsters under the bed.) The language is there in scripture, and it does no one any good to pretend otherwise, so we have to decide how to handle it there. And to stop singing, or rewrite from top to bottom, a beloved hymn because it depicts Christians as soldiers, is, I think, misguided, for reasons I hope I will make clear in the next few minutes.
If you look at our readings for this morning – specifically, the readings from Revelation and Matthew – they would seem at first glance to come from the opposite ends of the spectrum on this question. But if we look closer, I think we’ll find that they’re speaking with a much more unified voice than is first apparent.
The Revelation to John is, without question, a text soaked in violence. The few passages from this book that we hear on Sundays are carefully chosen to skirt around much of it, but it is this way because it is a text that speaks to the experience of a community being targeted with extreme violence. This is what is being referenced when the elder identifies the members of the great crowd standing around the throne of the Lamb as “those who have come out of the great ordeal” (or, in older translations, “the great tribulation”).
The communities to which John is writing are facing the wrath of an empire whose gods and rulers they refuse to worship, and they are suffering as a result; many of them have made the ultimate sacrifice. One might forgive them for wishing to see their enemies – who seem, at least by earthly standards, infinitely more powerful than they – tossed into a lake of hot lava or slaughtered by one of the four horsemen of the apocalypse. But to us, living in a very different time, these images seem like they belong in Game of Thrones, perhaps, but not in scripture, which we would like to believe is more uplifting.
We might turn, then, to the Beatitudes, this well-loved passage from Matthew’s Gospel. Blessed are the meek. Blessed are the merciful. Blessed area the peacemakers. These are the words we want to hear from, and about, Jesus. They sound so much kinder and gentler than washing our robes in the blood of the Lamb.
But think for a moment about what it entails to be meek. Or merciful. Or to make peace.
Meekness is not a mealy-mouthed virtue. Meekness is the self-discipline of the one who is deeply formed by the practice of nonviolence, who stands on the bridge staring down the fire hoses and the attack dogs and refuses to budge because she knows that her cause is right.
Mercy? Mercy is hard, people. Forgiving those who have hurt you, instead of lashing out at them in the hopes of inflicting similar pain, and then moving on and building a life that is no longer governed and deformed by that pain – that takes extraordinary courage.
And making peace? I have a colleague who is the executive director of an organization called Kids for Peace. Sounds charming, right? It’s a nonprofit that seeks to build peace in Israel and Palestine by bringing together Jewish, Muslim and Christian kids for camps and workshops where they can get to know each other as people and build relationships. His work is unrelenting and he doesn’t talk much about the amount of hate mail he gets, the difficult conditions when they go to Palestine, where there’s no running water and sometimes the power is only on for a few hours a day, or the fact that he and his staff are literally risking their lives some days on the job. This kind of peacemaking requires a level of self-sacrifice that goes above loyalty to one or the other side and instead places one’s trust and loyalty in Christ, the Prince of Peace.Discipline. Courage. Loyalty. These sound awfully like the virtues of, well, a soldier.
Nobody needs me, a civilian, to stand up in front of this congregation chock-full of current and former military (and military spouses and families) and explain what courage, loyalty and discipline mean. And I think we can all understand that being a soldier for Christ does not mean going out and killing people for Jesus.
We may fall in different places along the continuum of opinion on whether it’s ever permissible to use violence in pursuit of one’s aims (this question is currently known on social media as the “punching Nazi question” and as the granddaughter of a woman who shot an actual Nazi dead in her living room in 1944, I may not be the most impartial person to ask on the subject). Some of us are combat veterans; some are pacifists; heck, some may be both. All of these things are OK.
What I want us to understand this morning is that when we read the Beatitudes and then sing hymns that describe the saints as soldiers, we are not contradicting ourselves. Disciples of Jesus Christ have real and identifiable enemies. (Remember when I mentioned the monsters under the bed? Here they are.) Those enemies are not cartoon monsters. And they are definitely not our fellow human beings, all of whom are beloved children of God (yes, even the Nazis – though that doesn’t make their behavior any more excusable).
The enemies of God, and of us as God’s people, are identified in the threefold renunciation that we make at the baptismal font: the devil and all forces that defy God; the powers of this world that rebel against God; and the ways of sin that draw us from God.
It is these enemies against which we do battle, and these enemies whom the great saints vanquished in their lives of virtuous struggle. Our own greed, cowardice, laziness, and cruelty; our corporate sin, the injustice of our societies, our oppression of those who are different from us, our abuse of God’s good gifts in creation, our neglect of the poor and needy, and yes, our tendency to resort to violence at the slightest provocation – these are the powers against which we fight, and will continue to fight until we are no longer able.
The wonderful thing – well, there are two wonderful things, for both of which we give thanks today:
The first is that although the battle is often hard and frequently seems hopeless – and when the strife is fierce, the warfare long – in fact, victory is already assured. This battle is like the climactic battle in every fantasy novel ever written, when the forces of good are overwhelmed in every way and yet at the last minute, something happens to turn the tide. (It’s no accident that the original fantasy novels were written by devout, practicing Christians who were also veterans of the Second World War.) Jesus has already won the victory for us: steals on the ear the distant triumph song. We may be outgunned, outmanned, outnumbered, outplanned, but we will never be defeated.
And the second wonderful thing is that we are never alone. We are surrounded by the communion of saints, by that great cloud of witnesses who have gone before us, who know this struggle intimately and who are still there, shoulder to shoulder with us. They are blessed by God and they show us the way to that blessedness in our turn.
“These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. For this reason they are before the throne of God, and worship him day and night within his temple, and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them. They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”
They have fought nobly, as we still fight; and they now rejoice, as we one day hope to rejoice.
O blest communion, fellowship divine!
We feebly struggle, they in glory shine;
Yet all are one in thee, for all are thine:
Holy Trinity, Newington/Imanuel, Newington
Proper 24, Year A
October 22, 2017
“Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
Or, in the old translation that became an aphorism independent of its context, “Render unto Caesar …”
Jesus, in his ongoing war of words with the religious authorities, neatly evades a trick question here. The Pharisees, in their attempts to “entrap” him, knew that the question about taxes was the one that really mattered. If he answered “yes”, he would be viewed by the Jews as a collaborator; if he answered “no”, he would be seen by the Romans as a traitor. There was no good option.
But Jesus not only finds a good option, he calls out the questioners on their “malice,” making it clear that he knows exactly what game they’re playing.
Within his clever answer, though, is another, deeper trick question.
Jesus seems to accept the idea that if the emperor’s image and superscription are on the coin, then the coin must belong to the emperor. Often his answer is interpreted to mean, “Give your money to the earthly authorities that demand it, but save the really important things – yourself, your faith and allegiance – for God.”
This is fine as far as it goes, but if we stop there, we can end up thinking that there are parts of our lives to which God and faith are relevant, and parts of our lives to which they aren’t. But this is a dangerous misconception. Taken to its extreme, it can result in one of the heresies known as dualism or Gnosticism, in which everything earthly is considered sinful and corrupt, and we are saved, not through faith in God, but through secret knowledge.
Because regardless of the verbal gymnastics that Jesus has to perform in order to get the Pharisees off his back (very temporarily, as it turns out, since he’s crucified three days after this conversation happens) – the truth is, there’s nothing in our lives that’s exempt from God’s concern.
If we were in any doubt, we need only turn to the passage from the prophet Isaiah, the first of today’s lessons. It will require a little context to understand the impact of this passage, so bear with me.
At the time of the writing of this chapter, the Israelites were in exile, but King Cyrus had just become king of Persia and was making plans (for political reasons of his own) to return the people of Israel and Judah to their homeland. Because of this, Isaiah saw Cyrus as an agent of God’s will.
It’s hard to overstate how radical this assertion – that a Persian king, a worshiper of Marduk, could be doing the will of the God of Israel – was, in the context of the 5th century BCE. The rulers of one nation were not supposed to have relationships with the gods of another. The ruler’s job was to obey and placate his own nation’s gods. The gods of other nations were the responsibility of those nations’ kings. Each nation asserted that its gods were the best and most powerful, but no one really disputed that all those gods existed. Even the stubbornly monotheistic Israelites accepted that the other nations’ gods were real, although they often called them demons or abominations instead of gods. The idea that there was one god who ruled over all the nations was practically unthinkable.
But Isaiah thought it. And he hammered away at the idea throughout the seven verses of today’s passage. “I am the Lord and there is no other; besides me there is no God. … There is no one besides me; I am the Lord, and there is no other.” And just in case Cyrus has not yet gotten the point, God repeats: “I form light and create darkness, I make weal and create woe; I the Lord do all these things.”
In other words, God is not taking responsibility only for the good things in human life (light, “weal”); God also confidently declares that the bad things are his responsibility too (“I … create woe”). The Lord is the Lord of the whole earth; there is nothing that falls outside God’s purview.
People often question how God can be all-powerful and good when there is so much suffering in the world. This doesn’t seem to be a question that bothers Isaiah’s God; he seems quite comfortable being responsible for all of it, the good as well as the bad. We are the ones who have the impulse to try to separate out the unpleasant stuff and assign it to some other entity than the God we worship – like those who use today’s Gospel passage to claim that money is dirty and unworthy of the attention of God, and so we should “render unto Caesar” and otherwise try to keep our minds on loftier things.
Actually, the entire rest of the Gospels shows that Jesus is deeply concerned about what we do with our money. The Gospels are, in fact, relentlessly economic documents, from the Parable of the Talents to the widow’s mite. Our money is the last thing that should be bracketed out of our faith lives.
In this stewardship season, we reflect on the ways we use the gifts that God had given us, our financial resources very much included. And we take a hard look at how we are spending our money, and whether that reflects the values and priorities that we claim to hold.
Since signing my first online petition circa 1999, I have gotten on the mailing list of pretty much every nonprofit in existence. Most of them send me mail at least several times a year. I let the envelopes pile up until the end of the month, and then I sit down and go through them. I can only contribute to a tiny fraction of the solicitations, but each month I do write a few checks, based on a percentage of whatever my income is at the time. And I try to remember to pray over the ones I can’t respond to (well, except for the occasional request from an organization promoting something in direct opposition to my values; it’s always entertaining to wonder how I got on those lists). And I contribute an equal amount to churches or other ministries that I support. This is very much an expression of my faith.
Of course, I also pay my taxes, because participating in the common good through government is also one of my values – though I would do so more joyfully if less of the money went to weapons and subsidizing fossil fuel production, and more of it to feeding the hungry, caring for creation, and healing the sick.
There is nothing in our lives that God does not consider relevant to our faithfulness and our flourishing. There is nothing that falls outside God’s domain of concern.
I was reminded of this once again over the past weekend, when the hashtag “Me Too” began to trend on social media. Thousands of women (and others) used this simple phrase to indicate that they, too, had been the victims of the kind of abuse perpetrated by the film director Harvey Weinstein over decades of his career. And a horrifying number of those stories came from within the church. There are too many pastors and church leaders – and one would be too many! – who think that their institutional authority gives them unquestioned access to other people’s bodies, to use and abuse as they like. They have apparently forgotten that there is no part of our lives that is not subject to God’s expectation that we love our neighbor as ourself.
And all too often, it is the victims, instead, who become convinced that they are too dirty and shameful to be acceptable to God, when in fact they are utterly innocent.
Because the flip side of the fact that all parts of our lives are owed to, and subject to, God, is the fact that there is no part of our lives that is too messy and hard for God. There is no part of our experience that is so difficult that God cannot come and be present with us, sit with us in the pain and confusion, and help us to bring good out of evil. Even the perpetrators of abuse can be redeemed – if they realize the extent of the harm they have done, repent, and resolve to do better.
All of us belong to God; and God helps all of us.
“There is no one besides me; I am the Lord, and there is no other.”
And, it turns out, even the things that are the emperor’s, are also God’s.
Proper 22, Year A
October 8, 2017
They said to him, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time.”
This sentence is simultaneously satisfying and alarming. Satisfying, because it’s the punch line to an expert setup on Jesus’ part: his audience has played directly into his hands and said exactly what he intended them to say. Alarming, because, well, I would hope that any time that putting people to a miserable death is mentioned, we would be at least somewhat alarmed.
I want to unpack this passage in some detail, and then look at how it connects to the image of the cornerstone, which Jesus throws into the middle of his story (yet another story) about a vineyard; and then, of course, explore what it means for us today.
First of all, who are “they” who said it to him? This parable follows directly on last week’s passage, in which the chief priests and Pharisees ask Jesus about where he gets his authority, and he won’t answer the question and then tells the story about the two sons. So when he begins with “Listen to another parable,” he is still talking to the priests and Pharisees. The crowds are listening eagerly, to see what both sides will say.
And when Jesus asks, “Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” the question is directed, again, to the religious authorities. So it is they, in response, who say – apparently without doubt or hesitation – that he will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to others who will actually fulfill their obligations.
I find it extraordinarily revealing that apparently, to the priests and Pharisees, the only person in this story who’s actually worthy of consideration as a full human being, is the landowner. (And possibly his son, but he’s dead by the time they weigh in.) The tenants – the bad ones who have stolen the harvest, and the theoretical newer, better tenants – are merely a means to an end: a way of gaining the profit from the vineyard while being able to be in another country at the same time. If they malfunction, you dispose of them and replace them with a newer model. And they seem to have no compunction about recommending the most extreme and violent means of disposal – putting them to a miserable death – not taking them to court, or just firing them without a reference.
All of which is by way of leading up to my main point, which is that it apparently never occurs to the chief priests and Pharisees that they should be identifying with anyone in the story, other than the landowner. They are so used to privilege and power that they cannot imagine that in this story, it is not the landowner (someone of their own class and background) who represents them, but rather the tenants. You have to chuckle when you imagine the looks on their faces when it becomes clear that that is not what Jesus meant at all.
And they should have known better. Because, as we can see from the reading from Isaiah, this image of Israel as the vineyard and God as the landowner is not new. In fact, it pervades the Hebrew Scriptures. Anyone as familiar with these writings as a priest or Pharisee should know that.
This exchange between Jesus and the religious leaders shines a sharp light on how easy it is for people, especially people in power, to forget that other people are human.
And the chief priests and Pharisees aren’t bad people. That’s not the point. They are doing their best, trying to lead a country under difficult circumstances, trying to follow God as they have been taught. The problem is that they’ve stopped being open to new perspectives. And they’ve forgotten that all people are children of God. They’re so secure in their own position and their own rightness that they’ve gotten lazy and stopped thinking.
This is a risk that all religious leaders, and all religious people, are prone to. Just because it was Jesus’ followers who were the “good guys” in this parable, doesn’t mean that we, as Jesus followers two thousand years later, aren’t prone to putting too much faith in our own rightness, and forgetting to listen for God’s voice telling us to go in a new and different direction.
(I also find it very revealing that when the tenants see the son coming, they say to themselves “Let us kill him” – not “to each other”. They don’t even see each other as human beings. Each of them is in it solely for himself.)
Jesus is pretty blunt about making the opposite point. None of us are superior; we are all beloved children of God. The only difference lies in whether we believe that, about ourselves and about others.
The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone. The kingdom of God will be taken away and given to the people who produce the fruits. Nobody should be resting securely in their position as a church leader – everyone, always, should be aware that what God cares about is what you do with the gifts you have been given, and whether you see the people around you as people, or as objects to be manipulated.
Contrary to popular belief, anyone can be a cornerstone. And any cornerstone can be demoted back to the lot if it doesn’t measure up.
Contrary to popular belief, the ones calling for the wretches to be put to a miserable death may be the ones who need to take some hard knocks for once, and learn an important lesson about whether they’re the only people capable of running the show.
This may sound a bit brutal – and Jesus’ language and images in this story are brutal; there’s no getting around it. There’s a lot of beating and killing and crushing happening in this passage.
This story is certainly no more brutal than, once again, the week’s news, which underscores what happens when one person, or set of people, stop seeing another person, or group of people, or apparently (in some cases) anyone else at all, as human, and worthy of consideration. When you open fire on a crowd from your 32nd-story hotel room, I think it’s a pretty good bet that you have lost all awareness of the members of the crowd as human beings, let alone beloved children of God.
So where, amid all this, is the good news?
The good news is that any of us can be the cornerstone, and any of us can bear good fruit. The only requirements are humility, and a heart that is willing to be wounded by the brutality of stories like this, and an openness to the stories and the humanity of others. If we can look at this story, and see and understand how we could be any of the characters in it – the landowner, the tenants, the slaves, the son – then, as Jesus says in another context, I think we are not far from the kingdom.
This is one of the reasons that I think one of the best things we can do to build faith in children – and in people of any age – is to read them, and encourage them to read themselves, fiction. There is nothing like it for building empathy, for opening us to the perspectives of people who are entirely different from us, for leading us to understand how what may seem like perplexing, even perverse, behavior springs from understandable motives and may seem to be the best or the only choice under the circumstances.
There is a reason Jesus taught by using stories. It’s because if we listen, really listen, to someone’s story, it becomes close to impossible to write that person off, to see them as less than human – to make the mistake the religious leaders made, of identifying only with the powerful person and forgetting that all the other characters were people too.
Any of us can be a cornerstone. Any of us can bear good fruit for the kingdom. Young and old, rich and poor, strong and weak, anyone of any gender, race, orientation, culture, national origin, immigration status, language, faith – no matter what your background, your history, or the obstacles you have had to overcome, there is a place for you in God’s story. We’re all invited to the party that will be held in the vineyard once the crop is harvested. The only requirement to come to the party is that you be happy that everyone else is invited too.
Recently, I was meeting with a very devoted and involved member of this congregation about some plans for a ministry she is part of. As we were talking, and she was reminded that she had signed up to do a particular job that coming Sunday, tears came to her eyes and she told me, “I know I promised to do it, but it’s just been such a stressful week, after a busy summer, and I really need some time away this weekend.”
I was so glad that she had brought this up and been honest about it. So often, the church buys into the toxic assumption of the wider culture, that busy-ness is good, and that our virtue is proven by how many tasks we accomplish and how full our days are. This assumption is literally killing us, from stress, lack of sleep and overwork.
In contrast, the Bible literally commands us to rest. It’s the Third Commandment: “Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy.” We no longer treat this commandment with the dour seriousness of our Puritan forebears, but we ignore it at our peril.
And we have been ignoring it. Our 24/7 work schedules, the instant availability of whole libraries of information at our fingertips, and all the activities with which we fill our scarce leisure hours, all conspire to eliminate sabbath observance from our lives.
It’s far too easy for church to become just another set of obligations and activities, to be crammed into the overstuffed calendar along with all the others. On the contrary, the church should be setting a countercultural example, by prioritizing rest and recreation.
Sabbath is about taking time off from our relentless DO-ing, to spend time just BE-ing. In some traditions (Judaism, Seventh Day Adventist) the parameters of Sabbath observance are well-defined and strict. In others, there is more leeway to define for oneself what feels like real Sabbath rest, as distinct from either work, or the kind of unhealthy rest that involves eating mindlessly eating junk food in front of the TV.
Sabbath rest is the kind of rest that puts you back in touch with God, and with what’s really important in your life. It doesn’t necessary have to be one full 24-hour period out of every 7 days, but once you get in the habit of carving out Sabbath time, you’ll wonder how you ever survived without it.
And the church member who teared up during the meeting because she was so frayed and stressed out? I’m glad to say that we quickly found someone else to cover her Sunday commitment, and she spent a refreshing weekend at the lake, which was the Sabbath that her soul needed in that moment. May we all follow her example!
Proper 20, Year A
September 24, 2017
Anon þe day with derk endente
Þe niy3t of deth dotz to enclyne.
Þat wro3t neuer wrang er þenne þay wente
Þe gentle Lorde þenne payez Hys hyne,
Þay dyden Hys heste; þay wern þereine;
Why schulde he not her labour alow?
3ys, and pay hym at þe fyrst fyne?
For þe grace of God is gret innoghe.
No, I’m not speaking in tongues; that’s the end of the paraphrase of today’s Gospel reading in the fourteenth-century English poem Pearl – contemporary with Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, and, as it happens, the subject of my undergraduate thesis.
The poem relates a vision of heaven, in which the poet sees a daughter whom he had lost as a small child, grown up into a beautiful maiden and living in heaven among the blessed souls. Not surprisingly, he would rather have her still living as a child on earth with him. He also objects that it’s not fair that she is already a queen in heaven when she hadn’t even learned to say the Lord’s Prayer. Her response is to relate this parable, the Parable of the Vineyard, and to compare herself to the workers who were hired at the eleventh hour and paid the same as the ones who had worked a full day.
“Not keeping score” was a major theme of my childhood. Whenever my sisters and I started fighting like cats over who had gotten a bigger cookie, or who wanted to sit where in the car, or who got to be in charge of what pretend game we would play next, our parents would break it up and brush off the whining of “But SHE started it!” with “I don’t care who started it,” and then repeat, like a mantra, “We don’t keep score” – reminding us that the point of our family life was not to score points against each other, or even to make sure that everyone got exactly the same thing, but to live in generosity and harmony.
That mantra – “we don’t keep score” – is the basic message of the Parable of the Vineyard. It is a fundamental element of the Good News, that God releases us from the soul-destroying effort to always have more toys than the Joneses, by loving both us and the Joneses so completely that competition seems ridiculous.
And it’s not even so much about not squabbling over whose cookie has more chocolate chips in it or whether it’s fair to pay some people $200 for twelve hours’ work while others get the same for only working from five to six PM. (Clearly it’s not fair. God isn’t fair; God is gracious and merciful.) It’s about the essential equality of everyone before God. In the Kingdom of Heaven, there’s no difference between the greatest saint who ever lived and – to return to the poem Pearl – the tiny child who hadn’t even learned to say the Lord’s Prayer. Both are equally glorified in God’s reality. This truly is the heart of God’s good news.
Since my mom was the Sunday School lady, “we don’t keep score” was consistently taught at church as well. And as she developed the Beulah Land felt board curriculum, it kept showing up in so many of the stories, and was rephrased as “God’s love is enough and more than enough”.
In God’s Kingdom, there is enough. God’s love cannot be exhausted. And so the fact that the people who only worked for an hour got paid $200, doesn’t take anything away from the people who worked the whole twelve hours, even if the latter were looking over their shoulders, making some quick calculations, and hoping for $2400. Because this isn’t about money.
Which isn’t to say that it’s only about love. Yes, God’s love is enough and more than enough. But if we stop there, we can pat ourselves on the back and feel good about ourselves, but we haven’t actually done much to help the kind of person who may be waiting in desperation on the sidewalk at 5 PM, hoping the boss will come by one more time, wondering whether he or she will be able to make any money today, make rent, feed their kids, buy the medications they need to survive. For the sake of those people, we need to be reminded that there is actually enough – now, not just in the Kingdom of God – to go around. There is enough food, enough resources, enough human potential, in the world for everyone to have what they need. Not for everyone to have what they want, but there is enough for our needs. Our love is a false and shabby thing if we are not working on making that practical “enough-ness” a reality.
When we read and reflected on this passage in the Wednesday evening service, Franklyn Vosburg perceptively pointed out (which I had never noticed before) that if the landowner had simply paid the people who got there first, first, he wouldn’t have had to deal with their grumbling and resentment when they saw that the people who arrived last were getting the same amount. So clearly it’s necessary, not only for God to bestow God’s gifts equally on everyone, but for everyone to see that it’s happening, to recognize that the last are being made first and vice versa.
So often we – like those all-day laborers – spend our time looking over our shoulders at what everyone else has and wondering why we don’t have the same. What would life look like if, instead, we sought out and celebrated those moments when someone who totally doesn’t deserve it (but might desperately need it) receives a completely unexpected gift of overwhelming generosity? After all, that person is just as much a child of God as we are, and given human nature, probably none of us actually deserve the blessings we are given.
My mother’s theology of “enough and more than enough” evolved not in an ivory tower of intellectual abstraction, but in the down-and-dirty context of a weeknight ministry to the children of the urban neighborhoods that surrounded the church. These were kids from families trapped in generational poverty, whose parents were often absent, on drugs, or in jail, who were frequently shuffled from their cousin’s house to their grandma’s house to their friend’s house and back again, who were raised mostly by TV and their older siblings, and who frequently had no idea where their next meal was coming from. Alongside their deep material poverty, they suffered from a desperate poverty of imagination and attachment: many of them had never read a book, had a consistent bedtime, or been able to bond to a reliable caregiver.
Brought into the church hall and given a snack, a Bible story, a meal, and the attention of volunteers, they acted out: they fought, they threw tantrums, they competed desperately for everything from the food to the laps of the favored adults. My mother and her coworkers had to teach themselves a crash course in how to cope with traumatized children, and it was out of that gradual process, of building routines and boundaries that allowed the children to trust, that the mantra arose – there is enough and more than enough. You don’t need to steal the lasagna from your neighbor’s plate; if you’re still hungry, there’s more. You don’t have to be the first one called on when you raise your hand; everyone will get the chance to speak and be heard. You don’t need to scream and cry if you don’t get to sit in Miss Sandy’s lap this week; Miss Sandy will be there next week. There is enough.
No wonder this parable is so beloved. It sums up what we are most grateful for about what God has done for us in Christ: God has given us no less than everything, with no strings attached. It is not surprising that this story is paraphrased in some of our greatest works of literature, from Pearl to the Easter proclamation of St. John Chrysostom, read at the turning point of the Great Vigil of Easter, and with the relevant portion of which I will now close.
All who have labored from the first hour, let them today receive their just reward.
Those who have come at the third hour, with thanksgiving let them keep the feast.
Those who have arrived at the sixth hour, let them have no misgivings; for they shall suffer no loss.
Those who have delayed until the ninth hour, let them draw near without hesitation.
Those who have arrived even at the eleventh hour, let them not fear on account of their delay.
For the Lord is gracious, and receives the last even as the first; he gives rest to the one who comes at the eleventh hour, just as to the one who has labored from the first. He has mercy upon the last, and cares for the first; to the one he is just, and to the other he is gracious. He both honors the work, and praises the intention.
Enter all of you, therefore, into the joy of our Lord, and whether first or last, receive your reward. O rich and poor, one with another, dance for joy! O you zealous and you negligent, celebrate the Day! You that have fasted, and you that have disregarded the fast, rejoice today! The table is rich-laden, feast royally, all of you! The calf is fatted, let no one go forth hungry!
God’s love is enough, and more than enough.
Tidings, September 2015
It feels as though I haven’t written a column in a long time that wasn’t about one of two things: either faith formation, or the situation in the Indonesian community. Hopefully I’ll be able to branch out again soon, but I have been getting a lot of questions lately, and there is some important information to be conveyed about the ongoing deportation crisis.
Many folks have asked me how they can help our friends at Imanuel Church and in the larger Indonesian community. The answer to that is many-layered, and it is up to each of us to determine our own level of involvement.
We want you to know, brothers and sisters, about the grace of God that has been granted to the churches of Macedonia; 2for during a severe ordeal of affliction, their abundant joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part. … Now as you excel in everything—in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in utmost eagerness, and in our love for you—so we want you to excel also in this generous undertaking. I do not say this as a command, but I am testing the genuineness of your love against the earnestness of others. (2 Corinthians 8:1-2,7-8)
Unless you are a very new member (or a casual attender), you most likely know a member of the Indonesian community. Indonesians worship with us, are confirmed with our youth, take part in group activities, have gotten involved in Lutheran Lay Ministry and have become our friends. Immanuel Indonesian Lutheran Church just celebrated its 17th anniversary and our covenant with them as they use our building.
Many fled persecution in Indonesia over a decade ago, but because of language difficulties, did not file for sanctuary status within the first year. Many have children who were born here (therefore are US Citizens) and work hard at entry level jobs. Even though they have been model citizens, they now face possible deportation.
The first thing you can do is to learn the whole story and not just the headlines. Most undocumented immigrants are hardworking, law abiding citizens who take jobs that other Americans find menial (busboys, cooks, lawn service, hotel cleaners, low level factory work, etc.). We will be having an Adult Forum on the topic shortly. Come and learn – for their sake and yours.
Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. (I Thess. 5:16-18)
All of us should be remembering our Indonesian friends in our prayers every day. Pray for the safety of those who have been told to buy plane tickets; for those who are anxious about the coming days and weeks; for those who do not know how to plan for what might come next; for the US citizen children facing either separation from their families or being sent to a country they barely know; and pray for all the clergy, politicians, activists, lawyers and ordinary people fighting for justice and mercy within a system that all too often involves neither.
Third: Show up.
On the seventh day you shall march around the city seven times, the priests blowing the trumpets. When they make a long blast with the ram’s horn, as soon as you hear the sound of the trumpet, then all the people shall shout with a great shout; and the wall of the city will fall down flat. (Joshua 6:4-5)
Come to a service at Imanuel at 2 PM on Sunday (for the foreseeable future, Pastor George and I will be leading these, so at least the main prayers and the sermon will be in English). Usually, there is delicious food afterward. Imanuel folks are always delighted to welcome Holy Trinity folks to these services and share a meal with us
You can also attend the vigils that are being held at the Norris Cotton Federal Building in Manchester whenever there is a check-in. Currently, there are vigils planned on September 19, October 3 and October 6, as well as one that will be on either September 28 or 29 (let me know if you want to be informed when that date is finalized). The vigils last from 8:30-10:00 and are entirely peaceful. Participants can choose to walk around the building on the “Jericho Walk” or simply wait on the plaza by the entrance.
Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. (James 1:17)
New Hampshire Indonesian Community Support, led by Rev. Sandra Pontoh, is serving as a clearinghouse for donations for the purchase of plane tickets and for other needs. I am on the informal advisory board helping Pastor Sandra determine which requests to fulfil, so I can affirm that the money is going to those who really need it. Checks can be made out and mailed to NH Indonesian Community Support, 61 Locust Street, Suite 322, Dover, NH 03820.
“If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.” (John 14: 15-16)
In the gospel (and letters) of John, the Holy Spirit is known as the advocate (literally, “the one who stands beside you.”) Having received the Holy Spirit at baptism, we can stand beside our Indonesian brothers and sisters and accompany them to the courthouse when they have court appearance dates. We can write letters on their behalf to our elected leaders. Our Senators and Representatives are already actively working on behalf of those who are at risk, but it always helps for them to know that their constituents also care about this issue. Contacting Governor Sununu and the White House will also, we hope, help to change hearts and minds.
Sixth - Welcome.
Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin? (Isaiah 58:6-7)
Several members of Imanuel have told me that it may be helpful for them at some point to be able to stay temporarily in the homes of citizens, especially during an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raid that may happen with little notice in the coming days. While we hear a lot about churches offering sanctuary, people’s homes are actually legally more defensible than churches, since law enforcement cannot enter without either the permission of the homeowner, or a search warrant. If you feel that you are being called to offer your space in the case of this eventuality, please get in touch and I will facilitate a meeting between you and those who may need help.
These are scary times. It is hard to see our friends in danger. I hope that having this information will help you take action in accordance with your ability and your faith. Thank you.
P.S. Thanks to Pastor George for editing and adding some material to this column!
Proper 18, Year A
September 10, 2017
The blood shall be a sign for you on the houses where you live: when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague shall destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt.
When I told the story of the calling of Samuel at VBS, the oldest group – confirmation age – got into a lively discussion of the practice of animal sacrifice in ancient Israelite religion. Most of the kids had no idea that slaughtering animals had been part of the routine of Temple worship. And this passage describing the Exodus ritual takes it one step further: not only do we get detailed instructions for the slaughtering and cooking of the animal, but a command to smear its blood on the doorway of the house as a way of demonstrating the household’s faithfulness to the God of Israel.
It’s a disturbing image. But it is memorable. It makes us sit up and take notice. It reminds us that the oppression in Egypt was real and it angered God, and that the Israelites had to be clear in their desire to go forth from Egypt, to claim their own freedom and their identity as God’s people. (This wasn’t necessarily as easy as we might think, given the records of their complaining in the desert about how bad the food was!)
And it makes me wonder: how do we mark our own doorposts? How are our lives marked by our knowledge that we are children of God and our commitment to be disciples of Jesus? What is different about us, and is that difference visible?
I don’t mean literally marked – although it is fun to perform the annual Epiphany ritual of drawing the year on the lintel of our front doors and blessing the house in the name of God and the Three Kings. But that’s hardly on the same level as the Passover lamb.
Conversely, I know there are Christians out there who make a habit of accosting people on the street to ask them if they’ve invited Jesus into their hearts, or of signing public statements insisting that gay and lesbian folks are committing sin, and then rejoice in the negative feedback they get, understanding it to be the kind of persecution Jesus promised to his followers.
I hope it goes without saying that that’s not what I’m talking about either. For one thing, I don’t think it’s one size fits all. I think each of us must discern for ourselves how we are called to witness our faith to the world.
Our other two readings for today give us some sense of direction. Paul writes to the Romans, “Owe no one anything except to love one another.” Without a sense of the background to this verse, one may not have a sense of how deeply countercultural this was. Everything in first-century Mediterranean society was built on obligation. One’s obligations – to family, to patrons, to rulers, to the poor – were the foundation of one’s identity. For Paul to say that the only thing we owed to each other was love, was enormously liberating, but also profoundly threatening to how people were used to dealing with each other. It required them to learn a whole new way of being in the world.
In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus outlines a simple way of dealing with conflict that is still eminently practical two thousand years later – and still very difficult to live out. People will always be more comfortable complaining to people who are sympathetic to them, than speaking directly to the people whom they have hurt or who have hurt them. But learning these patterns of healthy communication is essential, in order to live out the love we have for each other in Christ.
By these means – basing our lives on love, and showing the world what a healthy community looks like – we mark ourselves as children of God and disciples of Christ. Less attention-getting than blood on a doorpost, but hopefully just as effective. Not because we are afraid that God will strike us down if we don’t measure up, but because we want it to be clear who we are, and whose we are.
In recent weeks, more and more of my time has been taken up by responding to the crisis that is going on right here in New Hampshire, as our Indonesian friends and others who have lived here in peace for years and decades are suddenly threatened with deportation. This is terrifying for people whose whole lives are in this country, and who are in real danger if they are sent back. Faith communities and local organizations are rallying round, helping with plane tickets and legal advice, and showing up at the Federal Building in Manchester every time there is a check-in (which used to be just once a month, but this month there are six separate dates). Every time we gather, we walk seven times around the block, as the Israelites did in Jericho, praying for the walls of hate and prejudice, the walls that divide and imprison us, to come tumbling down.
Many of the clergy who participate in these actions wear our collars, stoles or other insignia while doing so. Certainly just wearing these things is no guarantee of good behavior. But at their best, as they are intended to be used, they are like the blood on the doorpost: they mark us out. They remind us that we belong to God. And they show to the people driving by on Chestnut Street that people of faith have gathered to witness on behalf of what is right and to stand with our friends and neighbors who are caught in this bureaucratic nightmare that threatens to upend their lives.
What each of us doing is, in the grand scheme of things, tiny. But taken together, it adds up. If nothing else, at least it makes clear where we stand. Like the blood on the doorpost of the Israelites’ houses, it says “no” to the powers that be, “no” to the forces of oppression, “no” to the murderous logic of empire, “no,” as the baptism service puts it, “to the powers of this world that rebel against God.”
Each of us is called to find our own way to say “no” to these things, and our own way to say “yes” to the love and faithfulness that God asks of us. As the old proverb asks, “If you were put on trial for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?”
This is not to say that our salvation is dependent on anything external, or on our faith being recognized by others. But once we have come to understand that we are beloved children of God and that nothing can change that, we also come to understand that we are disciples of Christ, and that Christ is always calling us to greater commitment and depth in our life of faith.
How do we live in love, in welcome, and in true community? How do we stand up to the corrupt powers of the world? What will be the mark on your doorpost, to show that you belong to God and not to Egypt?
Today, across the country, Lutherans are coming together to observe “God’s Work, Our Hands” Sunday through acts of selfless service. These, too, can be our marks, and we wear our T-shirts proudly to show why we are doing what we do.
As Christians, our mark is and always must be love. Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law. And they will – God willing – know that we are Christians by our love.