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Listen to the podcast by Bishop Michael Rinehart.

This painting of Moses and the Ten Commandments, on wood is by the artist Barbara Goshu, a Polish national. She is lives with her husband, artist Worku Goshu in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. The painting is in the private collection of the Goshu Art Galleries.

October 4, 2020 is Pentecost 18A/Proper 22A/Ordinary 28A

Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20 – The Ten Commandments
OR
Isaiah 5:1-7 – My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill. He dug it and cleared it of stones, and planted it with choice vines; he built a watchtower in the midst of it, and hewed out a wine vat in it; he expected it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes.

Psalm 19 – The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork. The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul… Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.
OR
Psalm 80:7-15 – Restore us, O God of hosts; let your face shine, that we may be saved. You brought a vine out of Egypt; you drove out the nations and planted it.

Philippians 3:4b-14 – Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ.

Matthew 21:33-46 – The parable of the Wicked Tenants

Prayer of the Day
Beloved God, from you come all things that are good. Lead us by the inspiration of your Spirit to know those things that are right, and by your merciful guidance, help us to do them, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

Gospel Acclamation
Alleluia. Jesus says, I chose you and appointed you
to go and bear fruit | that will last. Alleluia. (John 15:16)

Bread for the Wilderness

We are in the third week of a 5-week series entitled, “Bread for the Wilderness.” This time of pandemic is like a wilderness experience. What might we learn from the Israelites’ journey through the wilderness?

ComplaintExodus 16:2-15September 20God provides manna/quail as people complain
ProvisionExodus 17:1-7 September 27Moses strikes the rock and water comes out
LawEx. 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20October 4Moses receives the Ten Commandments
IdolatryExodus 32:1-14October 11Moses finds the Israelites worshipping a calf
GloryExodus 33:12-23October 18Moses sees God’s back, not face

Week 3: The Law
Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20

Egypt, out of the house of slavery;3you shall have no other gods before me. 4You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth…

7You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name.8Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. 9Six days you shall labor and do all your work… 

12Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you. 13You shall not murder.14You shall not commit adultery. 15You shall not steal. 16You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor. 17You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.

18When all the people witnessed the thunder and lightning, the sound of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking, they were afraid and trembled and stood at a distance, 19and said to Moses, “You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, or we will die.” 20Moses said to the people, “Do not be afraid; for God has come only to test you and to put the fear of him upon you so that you do not sin.”

 Our Exodus reading for this coming Sunday text omits verses 5-6 and 10-11, likely to keep the reading reasonably short for worship. 5-6 expound on the idolatry commandment. 10-11 expound on the Sabbath commandment: On the seventh day, you shall put no one to work, not your children, your slaves, your livestock, or even the immigrant. Then it ties the commandment to the six-day creation story in which God rested on the seventh day.

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On September 20 we were in Exodus 16, which some believe was near the Gulf of Suez, #5 on the map. On September 27, last week, Exodus 17, the Israelites camped at Rephidim, which is perhaps #7 on the map. Moses, Aaron and Joshua defeat Amalek at Rephidim in the remainder of chapter 17.

In chapter 18, Jethro pays Moses a visit. In a valuable lesson for leaders, Jethro helps over-functioning Moses, who is spending the day deciding cases. Jethro says, “You’re going to wear yourself out. Appoint judges over thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens. Let them handle the cases. You just handle the tough ones.” Sometimes the in-laws can be helpful.

In chapter 19, we are told they are at the third new moon since the Israelites left Egypt, in other words, three months into their 40-year journey. On that very day they came to the Sinai Wilderness, camping in front of the mountain, perhaps #8 on our map. Keep in mind, this story may be set in actual, historical places, but we cannot be certain where they were.

Moses went up the mountain to get a word from God. “The whole earth is mine, but you shall be a priestly, holy nation, my treasured possession. Obey my voice. And the people said, “All that the Lord has spoken we will do.” So far, so good.

This week we are in chapter 20, four chapters ahead of last week. Moses receives the Ten Commandments.

Numbering the Ten Commandments

While it’s generally accepted that there are Ten Commandments, they aren’t numbered, so different religious traditions divide Exodus 20:1-17 the parallel in Deuteronomy 5:4-21 in different ways. The number ten may have been chosen for the sake of memorization in pre-literate religious society. This chart from Wikipedia shows how different traditions have numbered the commandments. 

L in this chart is for Luther’s Catechism. Luther, an Augustinian, followed Augustine’s numbering (A), as does the Catholic numbering (C). This is the numbering that is most familiar to those who have gone through Lutheran Confirmation:

            Introduction: I am the Lord your God…

  1. You shall have no other gods before me.
  2. You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain.
  3. Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.
  4. Honor your father and your mother.
  5. You shall not kill.
  6. You shall not commit adultery.
  7. You shall not steal.
  8. You shall not bear false witness.
  9. You shall not covet your neighbor’s house.
  10. You shall not covet your neighbor’s spouse.

T is the Jewish Talmud. The Talmud takes the introduction as the first word. You shall have no other gods and you shall make not graven image make up the second word. This means that the Sabbath commandment, 3rd in the Lutheran numbering, is 4th in the Jewish numbering.

R is for Reformed and LXX is the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament). The Reformed numbering follows Calvin, who followed the Septuagint, so these columns are identical. This is also the numbering in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer. This numbering makes “no graven images” a separate commandment. To keep it at ten commandments, this numbering combines all the coveting into one final commandment.

P is Philo, who also followed the Septuagint, but reversed murder and adultery. S is for the Samaritan Penteteuch, which adds a commandment about Mt. Gerazim.

There is no “right” way. It’s just good to be aware of this when in ecumenical circles, and when finding graphics. And know, if you reference the “fifth commandment” in public, some will take this to mean “do not kill,” some will take it to mean “honor your father and mother,” and some will have no idea what you’re talking about.

Preaching the Ten Commandments

The Ten Commandments are part of catechism, and so they merit homiletical interpretation from time to time. One sermon won’t get it done, so some congregations do a series, either on Sunday morning, or during Lent from time to time. A sermon, or a sermon series, might remind people of the Ten Commandments, inviting them to memorize them. Make a bookmark. A sermon might also focus on the uses of the law.

A central hermeneutical principle in Lutheran theology and preaching is the distinction between Law and Gospel. The law is important, but it is not the gospel. The Bible is like the manger that holds the Christ child, Luther said. You have Baby and you have straw. You have to be able to distinguish between Baby and straw. Luther evaluated books of the New Testament based on their gospel content. Romans and Galatians got high marks. James, which has much law and little gospel, he called “an epistle of straw.”

In 1525, Luther wrote a treatise called How Christians Should Regard Moses. He regarded the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20 as one of two sermons from heaven in the Bible. The second is Pentecost in wind and tongues of flame. In this treatise, he also distinguishes between two kingdoms, a temporal, tangible, visible government, and the spiritual realm of forgiveness and grace.

Luther claims the Ten Commandments are not binding on Christians, because they were given by God to the people of Israel. Luther loves and values the commandments. He expounds upon them in the Small Catechism, but he reminds us Christianity is not a religion of the law. He says this “on account of the enthusiasts,” those who would pick obscure laws out of the Bible and throw them in others’ faces. If we assume Moses applies to us, we will have to be circumcised, eat kosher, observe Jewish feast days, and so on. If someone throws a Bible passage in your face, just say, “I am not concerned with what Moses says,” Luther advises. This will drive literal Bible fundamentalists crazy of course. “The word in Scripture is of two kinds: the first does not pertain or apply to me, the other kind does.”

Nevertheless, Luther says, we must not sweep Moses under the rug. There are good things here. Of course we should not kill each other. Second, there is plenty of grace and promise in Moses. Third, there is faith and the cross in Moses.

The Formula of Concord VI, says there are three uses of the law. The first use is to rein in the wild behavior of disobedient people. Some people just need to be told. The second use is like a mirror, to make us aware of our sins, and drive us to the gospel. A third use was debated: the use of the law as a rule to regulate life. To this third use, this article makes six points:

  1. Believers are no longer under the curse of the Law, but the Law is not to be done away with. Like Adam and Eve, the Law is written on our hearts.
  2. The law should be preached with diligence, not only for the sake of the unbelieving or impenitent, but also on believers justified by faith.
  3. For regeneration is not complete, the Old Adam clings to us in this life.
  4. Works of the law are extorted by threats of punishment. They are not fruits of the Spirit.
  5. Fruits of the Spirit are works of the Spirit they emerge spontaneously and freely from the regenerate, without punishment or reward.
  6. The Law remains the Law, but the regenerate do good works with a willing spirit, and without constraint, reward or punishment.

Therefore, the Formula rejects the dogma that the Law is to be preached only to unbelievers, and need not be preached to believers. This is one of the reasons that the Old Testament was included in the Bible. Christians need not follow the Law like orthodox Jews, but awareness of the Law is instructive.

The apostle Paul said that the Law was our guardian (babysitter) until faith came. Those who live by the Spirit are no longer under the Law. This does not, for Paul, mean we should disobey the law. It means that the Spirit guides those who live by faith. Thus, Paul does not insist on circumcision, even though Moses says it is an “eternal covenant” between God and God’s people. Paul does not insist on Jewish dietary laws, or abstinence from meat sacrificed to idols in the pagan marketplace. The Law is for us a helper, a guide, no longer our disciplinarian. It is given for our benefit, not for our punishment.

For Christians the law of love is primary. If keeping a commandment causes you to hurt your neighbor or neglect your neighbor’s need, break it. Hence, Jesus healed on the Sabbath. “If your donkey falls in a ditch on the Sabbath would you not pull it out?” Compassion is the heart of the law: Love of God and love of neighbor.

Understanding the Ten Commandments

A sermon might take each commandment one-by-one, as Luther does in the Small Catechism. The catechism might be made available to worshippers, or left on the church porch during the pandemic. Another option is to encourage the congregation to download Augsburg Fortress’ Small Catechism app: , available in the Apple App Store and at Google Play.

The First Commandment: You shallhave no other gods.

What does this mean? We are to fear, love, and trust in God above all things.

The Second Commandment: You shall not take the name of the Lord, your God, in vain.

What does this mean? We are to fear and love God that we may not curse, swear, practice magic, lie, or deceive using God’s name, but instead that we use that very name in every time of need to call on, pray to, praise, and give thanks to God.  

The Third Commandment: Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy.

What does this mean? We are to fear and love God that we may not despise preaching and God’s Word, but hold it sacred, and gladly hear and learn it.

The Fourth Commandment: Honor your father and your mother.

What does this mean? We are to fear and love God that we neither despise nor anger our parents and others in authority, but honor, serve, love, obey, and respect them.

The Fifth Commandment: You shall not murder.

What does this mean? We are to fear and love God so that we neither endanger or harm the lives of our neighbors, but instead help them and support them in all of life’s needs.

The Sixth Commandment: You shall not commit adultery.

What does this mean? We are to fear and love God that we may lead pure and decent lives in word and deed, and each of us loves and honors his or her spouse.

The Seventh Commandment: You shall not steal.

What does this mean? We are to fear and love God, so that we neither take our neighbors’ money or property nor acquire them by using shoddy merchandise or crooked deals, but instead help them to improve and protect their property and income.

The Eighth Commandment: You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.

What does this mean? We are to fear and love God so that we do not tell lies about our neighbors, betray or slander them, or destroy their reputations. Instead we are to come to their defense, speak well of them, and interpret everything they do in the best possible light.

The Ninth Commandment: You shall not covet your neighbor’s house.

What does this mean? We are to fear and love God, so that we do not try to trick our neighbors out of their inheritance or property or try to get it for ourselves by claiming to have a legal right to it and the like, but instead be of help and service to them in keeping what is theirs.

The Tenth Commandment: You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or male or female slave, man-servant, nor his maid-servant, or ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.

What does this mean? We are to fear and love God, so that we do not entice, force, or steal away from our neighbors their spouses, household workers, or livestock, but instead urge them to stay and fulfill their responsibilities to our neighbors.

One cannot help but see the positive interpretation of the prohibitions. The seventh commandment does not simply prohibit theft. It asks us to help our neighbors “improve and protect” their property. We are not only to refrain from lying, but speak well of our neighbors. This eighth commandment discourages gossip, something every community should observe. The preacher could recite these, and commandments and invite people to repeat them at home.

            “What is the first commandment?”
“You shall have no other gods.”

Then the pastor can talk about the various gods we worship and how they lead us astray. The sermon can conclude with the good news of the gospel. Because regeneration is not complete, we are still under the sway of sin, but through the cross of Christ, God offers us forgiveness, and the gift of the Holy Spirit to lead us into righteousness, love and the fruits of the Spirit.

The Ten Commandments in a Pandemic

The Israelites had left their life in Egypt, just three short months ago. They were no longer under Egyptian laws, which had discriminated against them in every way, including permitting slavery. What would their laws be? Moses was deciding cases, because conflict always arise in human community. Deciding on the basis of what? When we are in the wilderness, a new, dangerous, unknown situation, getting down to the basics rules of the road is important.

In this new world, we also have new rules.

  • Don’t home leave without your mask.
  • Don’t go into the grocery without a mask.
  • Stand six feet apart from others.
  • Wash your hands when you get home, and frequently.

Rules like this not only protect us. They show love for others. Of course, we will need to interact. People need groceries, after all. Of course, some of us will get sick. This is inevitable. There is no shame in this. The key is to infect as few others as possible, especially knowing you will likely walk around for a week before you show symptoms and know you have been infected. You shall not murder. “We are to fear and love God so that we neither endanger or harm the lives of our neighbors, but instead help them and support them in all of life’s needs.” The inconveniences are a kindness to others. Kindness is a value that sometimes gets left in the dust of a crisis.

It is always interesting to see how people behave in a crisis. It’s easy to be kind when everything is fine. When trouble arises, our selfishness tends to as well. The Old Adam rises up. Thanks be to God who has given us guidance for the wilderness journey, which is likely to be longer than we expect. Thanks be to Christ who has forgiven us in spite of our broken nature. Thanks be the Holy Spirit that fills us with fruits of the Spirit that sustain us for the wilderness journey.

Matthew 21:33-46 – Fruits of the Kingdom

33“Listen to another parable. There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a watchtower. Then he leased it to tenants and went to another country.34When the harvest time had come, he sent his slaves to the tenants to collect his produce. 35But the tenants seized his slaves and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. 36Again he sent other slaves, more than the first; and they treated them in the same way. 37Finally he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ 38But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.” 39So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him. 40Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” 41They 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.” 42Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the scriptures: ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes’? 43Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom. 44The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.” 45When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them. 46They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, because they regarded him as a prophet.

RCL gospel texts overview

  • September 6: Matthew 18:15-20 – Conflict
  • September 13: Matthew 18:21-35 – Forgiveness (The Unforgiving Slave)
  • September 20: Matthew 20:1-16 – Grace (Vineyard Laborers)
  • September 27: Matthew 21:23-32 – Humility (Two Sons)
  • October 4: Matthew 21:33-46 – Fruit (Wicked Tenants)
  • October 11: Matthew 22:1-14 – Expectation (Wedding Banquet)
  • October 18: Matthew 22:15-22 – Taxes (Render unto Caesar)
  • October 25: Reformation – John 8:31-36 (The truth will set you free.)

This week we hear yet another parable in our appointed gospel.

This is the third and final vineyard parable from this series in Matthew. The first was the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard, then the Parable of the Two Sons (in the vineyard) last week. This week we have the Parable of the Wicked Tenants.

A word about allegory. Augustine (and Luther after him) interpreted the Bible allegorically, especially the Hebrew Scriptures.

Augustine did not find Exodus 23:18, (“You shall not boil a kid in its mother’s milk,”) edifying, so, he interpreted it allegorically, and Christologically: “Christ should not himself perish in the slaughter of the innocents.”

This may seem a stretch (and it is), but this was the pattern: rereading the Hebrew Scriptures in light of the church’s faith in God’s revelation of Jesus as the messiah. This would not withstand the scrutiny of modern historical-critical exegesis, but know this: Paul does the same thing with Sarah, Abraham, Hagar, Isaac and Ishmael, law and gospel.

Luther, as a Late Medieval Augustinian theologian, understood the Bible had more than one level of meaning. There were many, but four were standard. This is called the quadriga:

  1. Literal – the first meaning, the plain sense of the text
  2. Allegorical – how the text speaks to faith in Christ
  3. Tropological – the moral meaning, how we are to act
  4. Anagogical – the spiritual meaning that points to eternal significance

Following Augustine, Luther interpreted the Old Testament Christologically, as can be seen in his commentary on the Psalms. It must be noted that this is not unique. It is typical of biblical hermeneutics in the Late Medieval period.

Forgive my excursus, but it seems clear that Matthew wants his readers to understand this story allegorically, and most likely Jesus did too.

Jesus speaks in riddles, parables, allegory, metaphor, simile and other figures of speech. At one point the disciples get so frustrated, they ask him to please speak “plainly.” Allegory is a common tool for mystics.

Even the characters in this text know this parable is an allegory. We see this in verse 45: “When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them.” The Pharisees recognize that although he is telling a story, they are the brunt of the joke. This isn’t really about some imaginary wicked tenants. It’s about them.

Even without Matthew explicitly telling us, if we follow his practice of using Scripture to interpret Scripture, we are led to the inevitable conclusion that Jesus is telling a story about one thing, while clearly meaning another. The tenants are the chief priests and the Pharisees.

Following this through, God is the landowner who sent the slaves/prophets, who were in turn beaten, stoned, and killed. God’s messengers are treated with violence. The killing and stoning of the prophets is made clear again in Matthew 23:25, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, killing the prophets and stoning all those sent to you…” This is a running theme in Matthew (and Isaiah). Prophets were stoned then, and still are today.

God sends the prophets to the people to call them to bear fruits of repentance – justice and mercy, the weightier matters of the law – but God gets only more violence. Over and over. This is the story of the world. God calls us to love. God calls us to create a society where people are fed. Instead there is violence. Jesus saw it in his day. There was the violence of the Roman Empire (torture and death by crucifixion, massacres, and so on) and violence by those who wanted to overthrow the Roman Empire (terrorists like the Sicarii and the Zealots).

Matthew’s Jesus is recalling Isaiah 5:1-7, our first reading from the Hebrew Scriptures. This text highlights the people’s ingratitude and lack of fruitfulness, as well as Yahweh’s troubled relationship with Israel (David Garland, Reading Matthew: a Literary and Theological Commentary, p. 221).

According to Emerson Powery,

Culturally, the leasing of land to tenant farmers was a common experience in the first century. Landowners could expect tenants to turn over (a portion of) the crop (cf. 21:34). Those who failed to meet the landowner’s standards would be removed from the land and landowning elite could usually pay others to remove them forcefully if necessary.

Do we have the courage to prophetically denounce the same pattern in our society? Consider the amount of money we spend on “defense” compared to the amount we spend feeding a hungry world.

Martin Luther King had the audacity to name the racist structures in U.S. society, culture and law. He had the audacity to proclaim a hope that one day race won’t divide. He too was stoned to death.

Finally in our parable, the landowner sends his own son. They seize him, throw him out of the vineyard, and kill him. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out who the son is (although we have plenty of them in Houston to ask, if necessary). Jesus’ crucifixion is the logical outcome of a society bent on violence. Jesus is an archetype for the suffering of this world, the falsely accused, the powerless, the victims of violence and hatred.

This is true of all who follow in his footsteps. How many gentle peacemakers have met a violent death? If you criticize or try to reform a system that is causing suffering, those benefitting from that system will be furious. You have threatened their sweet deal. As in this parable, the tenants will rise up and eliminate that threat.

There are many who believe we cannot fully understand the Scriptures until we hear them interpreted by those who suffer poverty, political oppression and hatred. Reading the Bible with refugees and immigrants surfaces new revelations. We all read the Bible from our social position. Someone who was raised in poverty understandably hears the stories differently than one who has inherited $50 million.

I love how Jesus ends his Parables with questions that force the listener to painfully acknowledge the point, like after the Good Samaritan: “Who do you think was the neighbor to the man who fell among robbers?” “The Samaritan, I suppose.” In this text: “What do you think the landowner will do about it?” Jesus invites his listeners to ponder the question. What should God do about injustice? The high priests have to grapple with the answer. This is a parable of judgment. “He will put those wretches to death,” – and here the chief priests and Pharisees start to squirm a bit – “and lease the vineyard to someone else, someone who will bear fruit.” “They condemn themselves with their own mouths.” (Garland) This is a tough text for those who believe in judgment “lite.”

It might be enough for Jesus just to shrug and let them come to their own conclusion, an inductive way of teaching, but Jesus chooses to punctuate his point: “Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom.” This is almost as bad as last week’s punch in the gut: “Truly I tell you, the tax-collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you.” Jesus does not mince words. He is clearly critical of the corrupt, arrogant religious establishment that is not bearing fruit, and he is on the side of those who have been ostracized by the self-righteous.

What is the fruit of the kingdom? Read on in Matthew: Feeding the hungry, providing water for those who need it, welcoming strangers, visiting the sick and imprisoned. Or read back in Matthew to the things Jesus refers to as “the weightier matters of the law,” the Micah 6:8 stuff: justice, compassion, humility. These are fruits of the kingdom Jesus finds wanting in the scribes and Pharisees.

We can imagine the workers in the vineyard to be the chief priests and Pharisees, but if we want to bring the parable to bear upon the present, we should imagine they are us. What does this story mean for us today? Stories are meant to have living implications for those who hear them. How do you hear this?

Lutheran Bishop Medardo Gomez spoke out against corruption and violence in El Salvador. For this he was imprisoned and beaten. Roman Catholic Archbishop Oscar Romero (who, by the way, Bishop Gomez once told me confirmed him) spoke up for justice, and was executed by the death squads (wicked tenants) while saying mass. Jerusalem, Jerusalem, if only you knew the ways of peace.

Are you speaking out against injustice? There is plenty to go around. Are you speaking up for the voiceless and powerless? If not, why not? Are you bearing witness against the violence both of the state and of those who wish to overthrow the state? Have you been thrown in prison for your prophetic voice? If not, why is that? Have you been willing to risk mild criticism on behalf of the poor, the widow, the orphan or the stranger? We are invited not just to believe in Jesus, but also to follow him.

This Jesus who is the cornerstone, is also a stumbling block for some.

Okay, an edgy text. So where’s the good news here? This is a parable of judgment. Sounds like bad news to me. We never take a text, however, outside of the greater context of the entire narrative of Matthew, and also the whole Bible, in which it resides. Here is good news: The vineyard owner cares. The vineyard owner is not an ambivalent deistic Prime Mover watching “from a distance.” This Vineyard Owner is going to do something that involves his son and a re-leasing of the vineyard. Warning: You might be part of this plan.

The good news is that God is calling all people to be part of the work in the vineyard, no matter what hour it is. The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few. The good news is that the Vineyard Owner will bring about the Reign of God, in time. It will be built upon a cornerstone that the builders rejected. That which appeared to have no value apparently is of ultimate value.

Enough

Listen to the podcast by Bishop Michael Rinehart

Mosaic of two fish and a basket of four loaves of bread, from the floor of Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fishes in Tabgha, NW shore of the Sea of Galilee in Israel.

August 2, 2020 is Pentecost 9A/Proper 13A/Ordinary 19A

Genesis 32:22-31 Jacob wrestles with God/the angel, in our ongoing walk through Genesis.
OR
Isaiah 55:1-5 – Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money,
come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.

Psalm 17:1-7, 15 – An interesting juxtaposition with Jacob’s dream in the Genesis reading: if you visit me by night, if you test me, you will find no wickedness in me; my mouth does not transgress… As for me, I shall behold your face in righteousness; when I awake I shall be satisfied, beholding your likeness.
OR
Psalm 145:8-9, 14-21 (16) – The Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. The Lord is good to all, and his compassion is over all that he has made.

Romans 9:1-5 – They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises; to them belong the patriarchs, and from them, according to the flesh, comes the Messiah, who is over all, God blessed forever. Amen.

Matthew 14:13-21Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds.

Prayer of the Day
Glorious God, your generosity waters the world with goodness, and you cover creation with abundance. Awaken in us a hunger for the food that satisfies both body and spirit, and with this food fill all the starving world; through your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

Gospel Acclamation
Alleluia. One does not live by | bread alone,
but by every word that comes from the | mouth of God. Alleluia. (Matt. 4:4)

Before I begin, I want to offer a word of thanks to Aimee Elles on our staff, and John Turnquist, both of whom read and proof these posts each week. Aimee also edits and posts the weekly podcast. Thanks also to Don Carlson who researched some of this post a few years ago.


Genesis 32 – Jacob wrestles with the angel

To fully appreciate this coming Sunday’s reading from Genesis 32, we need to recall where we are in the story. On July 19, 2020 we read about Jacob’s ladder, in Genesis 28. Jacob was in liminal space. In reality, he had fled for his life to the border of Israel and Canaan. In his dream, he was on the border between heaven and earth, space and time. In that dream he received grace, the patriarchal promise of progeny, and patriarchal promise of protection, in spite of his many deceptions and betrayals.

This week’s story is four chapters and twenty years later, according to Genesis 31:41. You know the background story:  Last week we read about how Jacob came to marry the two sisters, Leah, the elder daughter of Laban, with the tender eyes, and Rachel, the younger, who is pleasing to the eyes. He worked seven years for Rachel, but Laban switched out Rachel for Leah on the wedding day, tricking Jacob. Served Jacob right, for his many deceptions. So then he worked another seven years for Rachel, who he “loved more.”

Leah gave birth to Simeon, Reuben, Levi, and Judah. Rachel was having trouble getting pregnant, and getting desperate, so she gave her servant Bilhah to Jacob. Bilhah gave birth to Dan and Naphtali. Leah got jealous, so she gave her servant Zilpah to Jacob. Zilpah gave birth to Gad and Asher. Then Leah gave birth to Issachar, Zebulun and Dinah. (For a midrash on Dinah’s rape, check out this awesome but challenging read: The Red Tent). Finally, Rachel gave birth to Joseph, then died giving birth to Benjamin.

Jacob had two wives, two concubines and at least fourteen children. This is why I always chuckle when I hear the phrase, “We believe in biblical marriage.” I think not.

Jacob is doing well. His flocks are increasing. He is, however, having trouble with his father-in-law Laban, and also with Laban’s sons. Jacob’s flocks have done better than theirs, so they are jealous. The tension builds. His life is in danger, so God tells Jacob to return to his homeland.

Afraid of what Laban would say, Jacob sneaks out with his wives, concubines, kids and all the cattle which he considers his (but which Laban considers his). 3 days later Laban discovers they were gone and furiously sets out in hot pursuit. 10 days later Laban catches up. It is only a dream from God that prevents Laban from killing Jacob the cheater, who always seems to be in hot water with someone. Laban is angry, at the loss of his daughters, grandchildren and flocks, but somehow they are able reach an agreement. Jacob erects a standing stone, like he did at Bethel after his ladder dream, and they part company.

Whew.

Safe finally? Except this: A scout tells Jacob his betrayed brother Esau (whom Jacob had cheated out of his birthright and his father’s blessing) is approaching with 400 men. The last time they were together, Esau had vowed to kill Jacob. Uh oh. Jacob divides the entourage into two camps. This gives him a 50/50 chance of surviving. Always the trickster. Then he sends gifts to Esau. A peace offering? 200 female goats, 20 male, 200 ewes, 20 rams, 40 cows, 20 female donkeys, 10 male donkeys, 10 bulls, 30 female camels and so on.

This is the point that our reading for this coming Sunday begins.

In the night, Jacob packs up and sends ahead his wives, slaves and children. Esau wouldn’t kill them would he? Jacob himself stays on the far side of the river to watch what happens. Most would protect the women and children, but ever the scoundrel, Jacob acts in a cowardly fashion. I love it when people refer to the “Heroes of the Bible.” Have they read the Bible? Not so much. These are stories of deeply flawed people in highly dysfunctional families, whom God uses for God’s purposes anyway. This should give us all hope. Is it possible that God can use us too, in spite of our failings?

In the middle of the night, waiting to see how things go with the women and children, and Esau, Jacob is tossing and turning. He has one of his many dreams. This is a bad dream. No stairway to heaven this time. In his dream, he wrestles with a man, and when it is all over, although he prevails, he is left with a broken hip. Did Jacob wrestle with an angel, or with God? Hosea (12:3-5), in his poetic prophecy recalling Jacob, seems to think both:

 In the womb he tried to supplant his brother,
and in his manhood he strove with God.
He strove with the angel and prevailed,
he wept and sought his favor;
he met him at Bethel,
and there he spoke with him.
The Lord the God of hosts,
the Lord is his name!

This is a common motif. Remember in June, when we read about Abraham meeting with the three figures near the oaks of Mamre? Later we are told Abraham met with the Lord.

In Jacob’s dream, he asks for a blessing. Classic Jacob. “Give me something.” The man asks Jacob’s name, and renames him Israel (which means “who prevails with God”). Jacob also apparently believed he wrestled with God: “Certainly I have seen God face to face and prevailed.” Jacob was the first to think he was a hero.

This is where our reading ends, but it’s good to know the rest of the story. Esau approaches with over 400 men. Jacob, limping, puts the slaves and their children out front, then Leah and her children, the Rachel and her children. Priorities, right?

At the climax of the encounter, Jacob goes out front to face the music. He goes up to Esau and bows his head to the ground seven times. The listener is in agony to see how Esau will respond. Esau begins running toward Jacob, and the last minute, embraces him and kisses him.

This story is grace upon grace upon grace. All of Jacob’s life is grace, in spite of himself.

Some have called this a pre-incarnation appearance of Christ. That may be a bit much.

Homiletical possibilities abound. Every interesting person I have known has wrestled with God in one way or another. You can wrestle with God, but you’ll probably come away with a limp. Can we as preachers speak of our own wrestling with God? Can you dig deep and tell a story of your own Jacob moment? Let people know that their own wrestling with God isn’t unfaithfulness, but rather a normal experience, one that even Jesus had. “Let this cup pass from me.” “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me…”

In this story, God appears as a dark and disguised threat, not as a protector. Sometimes our experiences of the divine are like that. You will wrestle with God, but it’s an uphill battle. You never come out the same.  Just ask Jonah.

Jacob’s dreams and encounters with God come when he is exposed and vulnerable. Has this been true for you? Fears, darkness, loneliness, vulnerabilities, empty feelings of powerlessness, exhaustion and relentless pain are often precursors for a divine encounter. Ever been there?

Jacob is forced to confront his fears, weakness, sin, failings, and ruthlessness. Luther calls this tentatio in Latin. Anfechtung in German. In Luther’s theology of the cross, this is a path to God. Suffering often reveals God. There is no revelation without agitation. There is no art without struggle, without confronting our brokenness, our restlessness, our pain and weakness. Think about Paul’s thorn in the flesh.

When have you wrestled with God? Why? When have you experienced the Dark Night of the Soul, described by St. John of the Cross? What keeps you up at night? When have you experienced undeserved grace and blessing? You will receive blessings, in your divine encounters, but you may come away with a limp.

JACOB’S BLESSING

If this blessing were easy,
anyone could claim it.
As it is,
I am here to tell you
that it will take some work.

This is the blessing
that visits you
in the struggling,
in the wrestling,
in the striving.

This is the blessing
that comes
after you have left
everything behind,
after you have stepped out,
after you have crossed
into that realm
beyond every landmark
you have known.

This is the blessing
that takes all night
to find.

It’s not that this blessing
is so difficult,
as if it were not filled
with grace
or with the love
that lives
in every line.

It’s simply that
it requires you
to want it,
to ask for it,
to place yourself
in its path.

It demands that you
stand to meet it
when it arrives,
that you stretch yourself
in ways you didn’t know
you could move,
that you agree
to not give up.

So when this blessing comes,
borne in the hands
of the difficult angel
who has chosen you,
do not let go.
Give yourself
into its grip.

It will wound you,
but I tell you
there will come a day
when what felt to you
like limping

was something more
like dancing
as you moved into
the cadence
of your new
and blessed name.

—Jan Richardson
from The Cure for Sorrow: A Book of Blessings for Times of Grief

Isaiah 55:1-5 – You who have no money: Come and Eat!

If you choose to preach the Feeding of the 5,000, below, Isaiah 55 may be the better choice for the first reading.

Isaiah 55 is the last chapter in Second Isaiah. First Isaiah, chapters 1-23, 30-39, are pre-exilic. Second Isaiah, chapters 40-55, are exilic. Third Isaiah, chapters 56-66, post exilic. Fourth Isaiah, chapters 24-29, are post exilic.

Ho, everyone who thirsts,
come to the waters;
and you that have no money,
come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
without money and without price.
2 Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread,
and your labor for that which does not satisfy?
Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good,
and delight yourselves in rich food.
3 Incline your ear, and come to me;
listen, so that you may live.
I will make with you an everlasting covenant,
my steadfast, sure love for David.
4 See, I made him a witness to the peoples,
a leader and commander for the peoples.
5 See, you shall call nations that you do not know,
and nations that do not know you shall run to you,
because of the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel,
for he has glorified you. 

Walter Brueggemann

The most profound and troubling words in this passage come in the second verse, “Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy?”  Walter Brueggemann’s article, “Counterscript, speaks to these words in 19 theses.  Three of the more pointedly germane theses talk about a common script that empires hold, especially today. I quote them at length:

3. The dominant script of both selves and communities in our society, for both liberals and conservatives, is the script of therapeutic, technological, consumerist militarism that permeates every dimension of our common life.

    • I use the term therapeutic to refer to the assumption that there is a product or a treatment or a process to counteract every ache and pain and discomfort and trouble, so that life may be lived without inconvenience.
    • I use the term technological, following Jacques Ellul, to refer to the assumption that everything can be fixed and made right through human ingenuity; there is no issue so complex or so remote that it cannot he solved.
    • I say consumerist, because we live in a culture that believes that the whole world and all its resources are available to us without regard to the neighbor, that assumes more is better and that “if you want it, you need it.” Thus there is now an advertisement that says: “It is not something you don’t need; it is just that you haven’t thought of it.”

The militarism that pervades our society exists to protect and maintain the system and to deliver and guarantee all that is needed for therapeutic technological consumerism. This militarism occupies much of the church, much of the national budget and much of the research program of universities.

It is difficult to imagine life in our society outside the reach of this script; it is everywhere reiterated and legitimated. 

4. This script — enacted through advertising, propaganda and ideology, especially in the several liturgies of television — promises to make us safe and happy. Therapeutic, technological, consumerist militarism pervades our public life and promises us security and immunity from every threat. And if we shall be safe, then we shall be happy, for who could watch the ads for cars and beers and deodorants and give thought to such matters as the trade deficit or homelessness or the residue of anger and insanity left by the war or by destruction of the environment? This script, with its illusion of safety and happiness, invites life in a bubble that is absent of critical reflection. 

5. That script has failed.I know this is not the conclusion that all would draw. It is, however, a lesson that is learned by the nations over and over again. It is clear to all but the right-wing radio talk people and the sponsoring neoconservatives that the reach of the American military in global ambition has served only to destabilize and to produce new and deep threats to our society. The charade of a national security state has left us completely vulnerable to the whim of the very enemies that our security posture has itself evoked. A by-product of such attempts at security, moreover, has served in astonishing ways to evoke acrimony in the body politic that makes our democratic decision-making processes nearly unworkable.

We are not safe, and we are not happy. The script is guaranteed to produce new depths of insecurity and new waves of unhappiness. And in response to new depths of insecurity and new waves of unhappiness, a greater resolve arises to close the deal according to the script, which produces ever new waves and new depths.

This article was written in 2005; it is increasingly true today. A marvelous song of the best songs based on this text from Isaiah 55 John Foley’s Come to the Water – original arrangement and contemporary arrangementDownload the sheet music and MP3 arrangement samples.

I think of all those who are participating in food distributions in this difficult time. Come you who have no money. You who cannot work because of the pandemic, come and eat

Romans 9

Daniel Kirk points out that these first five verses of Romans 9 are an introduction to Paul’s argument in chapters 9-11. If salvation is now open to Gentiles, where does that leave the Jews? Kirk also points out that this passage is quite self-referential. In the English translation, Paul uses “I” or “my” over a dozen times. This is personal for Paul.

In chapters 1-8, Paul discussed the unity of Jews and Gentiles (non-Jews) – a unity they shared in and through Christ.

In chapters 9-11, Paul now addresses the unity shared by Jews and Christians. (Chapters 12-16 will concern the unity of Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians.)

Paul makes it clear that the covenants and promises are intact:

They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises; to them belong the patriarchs, and from them, according to the flesh, comes the Messiah, who is over all, God blessed forever. Amen.

One should read through chapters 9-11 in one fell swoop to get a sense of what Paul is after rhetorically. 11:25ff is one of the high points,

So that you may not claim to be wiser than you are, brothers and sisters, I want you to understand this mystery: a hardening has come upon part of Israel, until the full number of the Gentiles has come in. And so all Israel will be saved; as it is written,

‘Out of Zion will come the Deliverer;
he will banish ungodliness from Jacob.’
‘And this is my covenant with them,
when I take away their sins.’

Paul is a Jew. In fact, he is a Pharisee. He cannot understand why his fellow Jews don’t see in Christ, the fulfillment of the Law and Prophets. This section of Romans has been used anti-Semitically, but not Paul. Paul is a Jew, speaking to Jews. His conclusion, even in his agonizing disappointment, is that all Israel will be saved. God will make good on the covenant’s promises. Period. In other words, don’t think that you are wise enough to determine who ought to be “in” and who ought to be “out.” God is up to the business of inclusion, not exclusion. The reign of God is a centripetal, not centrifugal, force.

O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!
‘For who has known the mind of the Lord?
Or who has been his counselor?’
‘Or who has given a gift to him,
to receive a gift in return?’
For from him and through him and to him are all things.
To him be the glory forever. Amen.  

Once again, a song by John Foley Who Has Known would be a great contemplative piece during communion – words and sheet music.

Matthew 14: A Tale of Two Banquets

13Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. 14When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick. 15When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.” 16Jesus said to them, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” 17They replied, “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.” 18And he said, “Bring them here to me.” 19Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. 20And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. 21And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.

The Feeding of the Five Thousand is an important text. It is one of the few stories that appears in all four gospels.

The text begins, “When Jesus heard this…” The congregation won’t know what “this” is. “This” is the announcement of John the Baptist’s death, Jesus’ cousin. He is devastated, so he does on a boat to a deserted place, by himself.

The crowds, however, followed him. Like the story of Jacob, often God is revealed in the wake of a great crisis. It is when we are flat on our backs that we have nowhere to look but the heavens.

The Feeding in Matthew must be understood in light of the death of John the Baptist at Herod’s wedding banquet. Matthew is contrasting two banquets: Herod’s banquet and Jesus’ banquet. Matthew retains the juxtaposition of Herod’s banquet and Jesus’ banquet in Mark, from which he gets the story.

This Herod is not Herod the Great from the infancy narrative, who, as we know, died, making possible the Holy Family’s return from Egypt. This is Herod’s son, less powerful as indicated by the fact that he is simply identified as Herod the tetrarch. Herod the Great’s kingdom has been split into four territories, weakening it. Nevertheless, Hauerwas (Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible: Matthew) points out that this Herod seems to be skilled in the politics of death like his father before him.

These are two very different meal stories, as Barbara Lundblad (http://day1.org/1259-two_very_different_banquets) and Gordon Lathrop (The Four Gospels on Sunday) have both so articulately pointed out.

Herod’s banquet is in a lavish place. Jesus’ banquet is in a deserted place. In Herod’s place there is plenty. Excess even. It is a place of power. Call it a power lunch. There is plenty for a few, while the masses starve. Important officials are invited. Herod’s wife is there, the one he stole from his brother, an act of power which John the Baptist denounced. Women are brought in to perform and pleasure the powerful men. A powerless prisoner is executed for entertainment. Herod seems reluctant to execute John, but he has promised the party he would give Herodias what she wants. In order to maintain power, the powerful must maintain the myth of power. The leftovers of Jesus’ banquet are twelve baskets of bread. The leftovers of Herod’s banquet are death and decay: John’s head delivered on plate, like a pig, like the final course.

Barbara Lundblad asks,

Is it possible to maintain an empire and feed people who are hungry? The leftovers of empire have almost always been destruction and death–even in the name of peace and security. There is always enough money for weapons, but never enough to feed those who are hungry. Into such a world, Jesus comes with an alternative vision.

We who live in the world’s most powerful empire must ask this same question. When do the bloody sacrifices of being an empire compromise our ability to serve the world, to be a blessing?

In contrast to the banquet in Herod’s palace, Jesus’ feast is outdoors, in nature, a deserted place – a place to which he took his disciples for rest, but the crowds followed. It is not in a lavish place, like Herod’s banquet. Those invited to Jesus’ feast are not the few, the rich and powerful, they are the poor, the lame, the blind, as in Isaiah’s prophecies. This is consistent with Jesus’ preaching (Luke 14:13).

Herod takes much, then leaves behind only death. Jesus takes a little and makes a lot of it. He spreads things out so that everyone has enough. Herod consumes. Jesus multiplies.

The Feeding is an apt parable for a hungry world. Jesus provides for all. Sharing is the order of the day, the principle of the kingdom. “That’s communism!” Someone said to me once. “No, it’s enough-ism.” It’s not about everyone getting exactly the same. That might not be fair. It’s about making sure everyone has enough, that’s all. This is not so radical a concept. People aspire to more than just “enough.” But clearly, there are many in our world who do not have even enough. Half the world lives on $2/day. One quarter live on $1/day. The thing that drives me nuts is that we have the wealth and now the technology to feed everyone. There’s plenty of food. We seem to lack the will. This is my sin too. Me having more is apparently more important than everyone having enough. I reaffirm this self-centered reality with nearly every nonessential purchase.

You give them something to eat,” is Jesus’ strong call, right up there with, “When I was hungry you gave me food,” and “blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice.”

Barbara Lundblad echoes the prophetic voice:

Jesus knows we are perplexed, but my excuses are no better than those of the disciples! Jesus knew long ago what economists and hunger activists tell us now: we have everything we need to end world hunger. It would take $13 billion a year. That’s not even 3% of our defense budget.

Don Carlson suggests an article by Walter Brueggemann, The Liturgy of Abundance, The Myth of Scarcity, as a helpful read prior to preaching. Brueggemann refers to Mark’s account, but it works for Matthew’s as well.

The feeding of the multitudes recorded in Mark’s Gospel is an example of the new world coming into being through God. When the disciples, charged with feeding the hungry crowd, found a child with five loaves and two fishes, Jesus took, blessed, broke and gave the bread. These are the four decisive verbs of our sacramental existence. Jesus conducted a Eucharist, a gratitude. He demonstrated that the world is filled with abundance and freighted with generosity. If bread is broken and shared, there is enough for all. Jesus is engaged in the sacramental, subversive reordering of public reality.

The profane is the opposite of the sacramental. “Profane” means flat, empty, one-dimensional, exhausted. The market ideology wants us to believe that the world is profane – life consists of buying and selling, weighing, measuring and trading, and then finally sinking down into death and nothingness. But Jesus presents an entirely different kind of economy, one infused with the mystery of abundance and a cruciform kind of generosity. Jesus promises a new economy.

Five thousand are fed. 12 baskets of food are left over – one for every tribe of Israel. Jesus transforms the economy by blessing it and breaking it beyond self-interest. From broken Friday bread, comes Sunday abundance. In this and in the following account of a miraculous feeding, people do not grasp, hoard, resent, or act selfishly; they watch as the joy of heaven multiply the bread of earth. Jesus reaffirms Genesis 1.

The feeding of the 5000 – or 4000 in some accounts – shows up six times in the gospels.  John Dominic Crossan suggests that loaves and fish are an allusion to Sepphoris and Tiberias in Galilee. Sepphoris, a very Romanized city, was the center for grain; the breadbasket of Galilee. Tiberias, built in honor of Tiberius Caesar, was a very Romanized city that was the center of the fishing trade. Both were built to feed and sustain the empire.

[Herod] Antipas had multiplied the loaves in the valleys around Sepphoris, and he now intended to multiply the fishes in the waters around Tiberias, for the kingdom of Rome. But a magnificently parabolic counter-story tells us how Jesus multiplied the loaves and the fishes- for the kingdom of God. (Crossan, The Greatest Prayer, p. 126)

As we have had parables about the kingdom of heaven for the past few weeks, this story then is also about the kingdom of heaven vis-à-vis the kingdom of Caesar. Where is nourishment to be found? Where is abundance to be found? To go back to Isaiah, where and what are the things that truly satisfy?

A final Brueggemann article, “Enough is Enough” elaborates on a theology of scarcity versus a theology of abundance, starting with Genesis. Make these very different ways of thinking and being in the world come alive for your people, for their own sake, and for the sake of the world.

No Ditches – Easter 6A

Listen to the sermon

The Areopagus (Mars Hill), looking up at the Acropolis – photo credit: Pastor Don Carlson, April 2014

Easter 6A – May 17, 2020

Acts 17:22-31 – Paul at the Areopagus/Mars Hill in Athens. Altar to an unknown God. In him we live and move and have our being, as your own poets have said…

Psalm 66:8-20 – Make a joyful noise to God all the earth. Come and see what he has done.

1 Peter 3:13-22 – For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God. He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit, in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison.

John 14:15-21 – If you love me, you will keep my commandments and I will ask the Father to send the Advocate, the Spirit of Truth.

Video & Sermon Text | Audio podcast


These last few weeks in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, in place of my usual sermon starts and exegetical notes, Bishop’s Associates Tracey Breashears Schultz, Chris Markert and I have been providing sermons on video and in writing for congregations to use. Here are some links to those sermons:

Easter 2, April 19, 2020
Easter 3, April 26, 2020
Easter 4, May 3, 2020
Easter 5, May 10, 2020

For sermon thoughts on Acts 17, Paul at the Areopagus (Mars Hill), click HERE.

You can watch a video or download this sermon at https://gulfcoastsynod.org/worship-resources-may-2020/. Feel free to plagiarize, or simply drop the video into your livestream. Additional sermons for May will also be available here.

You can listen to the podcast here.


No Ditches

Most all of us have people in our lives with whom we check in. It’s a way we care for another and express our gratitude for each other. I’m talking about the friend you meet for dinner who asks you to call when you get home so they know you’re safe. I’m thinking about the parents who ask their children to call or text to say good night when they are staying the night with friends.

My husband and I have been married for ten years, and eight of those years, we have had a somewhat long-distance relationship. We live in Houston, but most of his work is in San Antonio. When he leaves Houston, he can get back to San Antonio in about three hours, and if I haven’t heard from him by then, I begin to worry because we have a pact, and that is that he will call or text when he gets there. I told him I like knowing he isn’t “off on the side of the road or in a ditch somewhere,” so often he will text me the message “No ditches. XO.”

I heard an interview recently of a woman who had been orphaned at the age of six when her parents were killed in a terrorist attack in South Sudan during the country’s civil war. She lived in refugee camps in Ethiopia and Kenya. She often went without food or fresh water. She did go to school, but it consisted of a shady spot under a tree where she would write her lessons with a stick in the dirt. She saw many of her friends die. When she was asked about her childhood, she did not mention these hardships at first. What she said was her biggest struggle was the loneliness – not having someone to check in with, not having someone concerned about where she was or if she’d made it home. There was no one worried she had fallen in a ditch, and she had, essentially, fallen in a ditch.[1]

In today’s lesson from John’s gospel, we hear what is called Jesus’ Farewell Discourse. It takes place just after the washing of the disciples’ feet, and it goes on for four chapters. In it, Jesus tells his disciples that he is going to leave them for now. He tells them not to worry. He tells them he will be back, and in the meantime, he says, they know what to do – keep his commandments. (Or, as The Message translates it, “If you love me, show it by doing what I’ve told you.”) He then goes on to tell them that in his absence, they will have the Spirit, whom he calls “another Advocate.” The Spirit will keep them connected to Jesus and to each other. The Spirit will make sure nobody falls in a ditch. The Spirit will be the one they check in with and who will check in with them if they don’t.

The third person of the Trinity, the Spirit, gets the spotlight on Pentecost Sunday, but besides that day on the church calendar, we tend not to talk about the person or work of the Spirit very often. The Spirit is associated, in some traditions, with praying or speaking in tongues or with being slain in the Spirit, and if these aren’t your traditions, they can seem scary or unfamiliar. Today, we hear Jesus use a name for the Spirit that may be really comforting and helpful. What does it mean, do you think, that Jesus, knowing he was returning to the Father, promised his followers an Advocate?

Merriam-Webster defines this as one who pleads the cause of another. At its root (from Middle English), is the word intercession. When we pray for another person, we advocate for them. The ELCA has a ministry of Advocacy[2] in which they, on behalf of our church, ask for just policies in the biblical areas of: peacemaking, hospitality to strangers, care for creation, and concern for people living in poverty and struggling with hunger and disease. They are interceding in the public arena for those whose voices might go unheard or for those who might be pushed to the side or marginalized if someone did not intercede for them. That’s the work of the Spirit.

In these days, we have opportunity to advocate for others, and we often hear and see people witnessing to this. Whenever we go out in public, we are asked to wear a mask. “I wear a mask to protect you. You wear a mask to protect me.” We are advocating for the health and well-being of one another. We are making sure I can contact my loved ones and tell them I haven’t fallen in a ditch, and you can do the same. When we ask the most vulnerable and those with underlying health conditions to stay home, we are not meaning to isolate them or push them aside. Rather, we are advocating for their well-being. We are saying: the world is dangerous right now, and we want to keep you safe. In Harris County, where I live, the mayor and county judge have taken steps so testing sites are accessible to those in underserved communities. These are people who might be forgotten if it weren’t for someone advocating for them. Again, that’s the work of the Spirit.

We all need someone to plead our case. Jesus promised we would never be without an Advocate. He told he would not leave us orphaned. This is such good news! The truth is, though, that in our broken world, many people are seemingly stranded on the side of the road somewhere, left in the proverbial ditch, with nobody to call on for help. Jesus told his followers that Spirit would be in them, would dwell in us. We have it deep within us to advocate for others, and when we do, we show others the abundant life Jesus intends for everyone. Isn’t it incredible, that imperfect as we are, the Spirit uses us to bring about life and resurrection for others? Isn’t it a gift that while the Spirit advocates for us, we can do the same for others? I wonder who, because of you and the Spirit within you, will be able to send a message home: “No ditches. XO.”


[1] The Daily (Podacast). “One Meat Plant. One Thousand Workers.” May 4, 2020.

[2] https://www.elca.org/Advocacy?gclid=Cj0KCQjwncT1BRDhARIsAOQF9LnazFmoASNNZVZ3p1dzcO2kH2MXT3LIvgT_8b2pqyO0mMPc0CA0bt4aAvb4EALw_wcB

 

Christ the King/ Reign of Christ – November 24, 2019

Listen to the Podcast.

Jeremiah 23:1-6 – Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture! says the Lord… The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.

Luke 1:68-79 – The Song of Zechariah: ‘Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them. He has raised up a mighty savior for us in the house of his servant David.
OR
Psalm 46 – God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam, we will not fear.

Colossians 1:11-20 – He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. He is the head of the body, the church. In him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.

Luke 23:33-43 – The Crucifixion. Father forgive them, for they know not what they do. There was also an inscription over him, ‘This is the King of the Jews.’ Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.

 

 

Christ the King/Reign of Christ

The texts for Christ the King change in each of the three years of the Revised Common Lectionary:

Year A Year B Year C
Ezek. 34:11-16, 20-24 2 Samuel 23:1-7 Jeremiah 23:1-6
Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14
Psalm 100 Ps. 132:1-12, (13-18) Luke 1:68-79
Psalm 95:1-7a Psalm 93 Psalm 46
Ephesians 1:15-23 Revelation 1:4b-8 Colossians 1:11-20
Matthew 25:31-46 John 18:33-37 Luke 23:33-43

 

Christ the King is the last holy Sunday in the Western liturgical calendar. It is the newest of Christian festivals. It was instituted by Pope Pius XI in 1925, to counter the rise of secularism and the rise of secular dictatorships in Europe. Pius hoped:

  1. That nations would see that the Church has the right to freedom and immunity from the state 
  2. That leaders and nations would give respect to Christ
  3. That the faithful would gain strength and courage from the celebration of the feast

 

 

Thanksgiving 

Some find this festival difficult. What is the alternative to secularism? Theocracy? Does not our concept of freedom of religion necessitate a secular state? Not an irreligious state, but one that allows for pluralism? Yes Christ is Lord, King if you will, but not in an earthly sense. “My kingdom is not of this world.”

Additionally, some find an apocalyptic focus unhelpful, when we are about to have the early Advent apocalyptic texts which focus on the second coming of Christ. My home congregation glossed over this “new” festival of the church year and used the Sunday to celebrate Thanksgiving, which, while not a religious festival, certainly gives time for a sacred theme of gratitude for all God’s gifts. The word Eucharist means Thanksgiving. The German mystic Meister Eckhart once famously said, “If the only prayer you ever prayed was ‘Thank you,’ it would be enough.”

If you want to go with a theme of gratitude, thanksgiving, or generosity, here are some thoughts:

 

If, however, you are sticking to the RCL texts, read on…

 

 

Luke

This is not just the last Sunday of the church year; it is also the last Sunday we will spend in the Lukan lectionary this year. As we read this last text from Luke chapter 21, and prepare to embark on a journey through Matthew’s Gospel beginning next week, I find myself profoundly grateful for Luke’s gospel.

Luke lifts up the universality of Jesus’ message to a greater extent than the other three canonical gospels. Jesus’ teaching that we are to love God with all our heart soul mind and strength, and love our neighbor as ourselves, was of itself nothing new. What was new was Jesus’ wider interpretation of the word “neighbor.” It was commonly understood that your neighbor was your fellow countryman. A Moabite or an Ammonite was not strictly understood as neighbor. Pagans were not neighbors. Samaritans were not neighbors. The neighbor laws had to do with how you treated your fellow countrymen and women. You do not charge interest to your brother/sister Israelite, but charging interest to Egyptians? That is perfectly appropriate. 

The debt of love you owed to your neighbors, was owed to your fellow Israelites, and so the lawyer’s question to Jesus, “But who is my neighbor?” is a fair question, and quite to the point. Luke is the only gospel in which Jesus responds to the lawyer’s question with the story of the Good Samaritan. After the story, Jesus responds with a question of his own. “Now, you tell me who is neighbor: Who do you think was neighbor to the man who fell among robbers?” Jesus reframes our understanding of neighbor from that of race and religion, to basic human compassion and decency. Even a stranger can be the neighbor. In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus moves from a nationalistic obligation to ones fellow citizens, to a universal obligation to all humanity.         

It seems this concept is losing traction in American Christianity. Now more than ever, Luke’s proclamation of Jesus needs to be heard. 

I will miss Luke. Without Luke we would not know the Good Samaritan, the Prodigal Son, or Zaccheus, the height-challenged tax collector of Jericho, whose life was changed spiritually and economically through an encounter with Jesus of Nazareth. 

 

 

Golgatha

Skull in rock at Golgotha

On this last Sunday of the church year, the lectionary takes us to the place called the Skull, (Κρανίον) possibly named for all the skulls that littered the site from thousands of previous crucifixions. (We don’t know where the place of the skull actually was. Some claim it was named because of this peculiar rock formation, but it was likely in a more open and public place.) I recently learned that many people were killed before they were crucified. While crucifixion was a form of torture, it’s primary purpose was deterrence. The many crosses outside cities along frequently traversed roadways sent a warning: This is what happens to all who defy their Roman masters. 

It doesn’t take much to imagine how humiliating and dehumanizing crucifixion was. To be publicly stripped of your clothes, mocked, then beaten senseless was to be completely dominated by laughing, well fed, well-dressed, well-paid soldiers. For them, this is just another day on the job. You are nothing. You will now be taken to the place of execution. You know this is what is happening, but there is nothing you can do about it. They will crucify you on a cross, making you carry that cross to the place where they will end your life. Once at the place of the skull, the soldiers may execute you in any number of ways, or crucify you alive. Apparently this is what they did to Jesus, along with two others. 

Matthew and Mark call them thieves/bandits (lestai). Luke calls them criminals (kakourgoi), literally, bad-doers. Lestai were bandits who robbed Romans and the wealthy Israelites who had caved in to Roman rule, profiting from it. Lestai is the word Luke uses for the “robbers” who beat the man on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho in the story of the Good Samaritan. These were not run-of-the-mill bandits. These were organized criminals that were trying to destabilize the collusion between the Roman occupation and the Jewish aristocracy. Their crime was more than theft. It was defiance of the Pax Romana, and therefore sedition. 

Jesus’ crime was most likely also sedition. After all, he had heralded the destruction of the Temple, and the destruction of Jerusalem. He had announced the coming of a new kingdom and taught his disciples to pray for it to come. He had ridden triumphantly into Jerusalem with shouts of “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord.” He had caused a riot in the Temple during Passover, chasing out the moneychangers with a whip. He was called the Christ, which means “anointed.” Only kings get anointed. He must think he is a King. Treason. His crime is nailed above his head on the cross: “King of the Jews.”

One of the lestai/kakourgoi said, “Hey you, Messiah, Christ, Anointed One, yeah you, would-be king: so if you’re all they say you are, then save yourself. And us too!” The other criminal said something different:, “Jesus, remember me, when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus replied, “Truly I tell you today you will be with me in paradise.” Jesus extended salvation freely to an unworthy thief, evil-doer, who had not even repented. This is a stunning act of grace.

And just like that we learn that while the reign of God may be breaking into our world, it encompasses more than this world. The line between heaven and earth is blurred. There is more to life than meets the eye. This kingdom, this reign that Jesus preached, where even strangers are our neighbors, where we turn the other cheek, where we share the shirt off our back, where we love our enemies, is a universal kingdom. For now we see only in a mirror dimly. The kingdom is eternal. Now is only a small portion of eternity. Trusting in the reign of God, of Christ, is to be in the moment, but also to see beyond this moment. It is to say at the same time, “The kingdom of God is among you,” (Luke 17:21) and “My kingdom is not of this world.” (John 18:36)

 

Pentecost 18C, Proper 23C, Lectionary 28C – October 13, 2019

Listen to the podcast.

Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7 Thus says the Lord to the exiles in Babylon: Build houses; plant gardens; take wives; have children. But seek the welfare of the city to which I have sent you.
OR
2 Kings 5:1-3, 7-15c – Namaan, a Syrian, goes to Elisha to be healed of his leprosy.

Psalm 66:1-12 – Make a joyful noise to the Lord all the earth, for he has tested us, refined us like silver.
OR
Psalm 111 I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.

2 Timothy 2:8-15 – I endure everything for the elect, that they may attain salvation. If we have died with him, we will also live with him. Do your best to show yourself an approved worker.

Luke 17:11-19 – Healing of the ten lepers.

 

October is Clergy Appreciation Month

 

 

 

Luke 17: Gratitude

We all know the story of the Ten Lepers, but most of your people probably won’t. For most of my 31 years of ordained ministry this text was appointed for Thanksgiving, so many of us old preachers tackled it annually between football games. 

On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance, they called out, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” When he saw them, he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were made clean. Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan. Then Jesus asked, “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” Then he said to him, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”

This story is a parallel of the healing; of Namaan the Syrian in 2 Kings 5 (one of our choices for the first reading of the day). Luke references Namaan’s healing in Luke 4:27. Jesus has already encountered a leper in Luke 5.

 Jesus is in some unnamed village between Samaria and Galilee, on his journey to Jerusalem, headed for we-all-know-what. Ten lepers come up to Jesus, asking for mercy. With an ostracizing disease they cannot participate in the religious, social or financial life of the community. Leprosy could be any number of diseases. An unknown spot on the arm could be diagnosed as leprosy by a priest. If so, certain rituals were performed. The leper would often be asked to leave the community until things cleared up. One could only return if the priest had declared the disease healed, and the person clean. This put tremendous power in the hands of the priests. 

Leprosy, in its many manifestations, is described in painstaking detail in the 59 verses of Leviticus 13. I won’t copy it all here. 

Houses could have leprosy too. Leviticus 14:34-47 says, 

When you come into the land of Canaan, which I give you for a possession, and I put a leprous disease in a house in the land of your possession, 35 the owner of the house shall come and tell the priest, saying, “There seems to me to be some sort of disease in my house.“36 The priest shall command that they empty the house before the priest goes to examine the disease, or all that is in the house will become unclean; and afterward the priest shall go in to inspect the house. 37 He shall examine the disease; if the disease is in the walls of the house with greenish or reddish spots, and if it appears to be deeper than the surface, 38 the priest shall go outside to the door of the house and shut up the house seven days. 39 The priest shall come again on the seventh day and make an inspection; if the disease has spread in the walls of the house, 40 the priest shall command that the stones in which the disease appears be taken out and thrown into an unclean place outside the city. 41 He shall have the inside of the house scraped thoroughly, and the plaster that is scraped off shall be dumped in an unclean place outside the city. 42 They shall take other stones and put them in the place of those stones, and take other plaster and plaster the house. 

43 If the disease breaks out again in the house, after he has taken out the stones and scraped the house and plastered it, 44 the priest shall go and make inspection; if the disease has spread in the house, it is a spreading leprous disease in the house; it is unclean. 45 He shall have the house torn down, its stones and timber and all the plaster of the house, and taken outside the city to an unclean place. 46 All who enter the house while it is shut up shall be unclean until the evening; 47 and all who sleep in the house shall wash their clothes; and all who eat in the house shall wash their clothes. 

Think black mold. These laws were designed for the safety of the whole community. They were like our health codes, mold abatement and so on. 

One can only imagine the struggle of being ostracized from the community. How does one work? Who helps you in your infirmity? How much would you miss your family? Does your family bring food to you? How far away are you from the comforts of home? For how long?

Jesus commands the ten lepers to go see the priests, even though they have not yet been healed. They must act on faith, going to the priests even though they have not seen even the first signs of healing. 

As they are on the way they are healed. Jesus asked them to visit the priests, but not for healing. A priest would have to give them a clean bill of health, before they could return home to mainstream society. Being sick, or more accurately here, unclean, inferred divine disfavor. If you had leprosy, God was clearly punishing you for some hidden sin. Healing was then a sign of forgiveness. It provided an opportunity to be restored to community. 

Once the ten realize they have been healed, they continue on their way. Where? Home presumably, understandably. One of them, however, returns to Jesus and begins praising God with a great voice (phoneis megaleis/φωνης μεγάλης: Megaphone!) I love the image of praising God with a megaphone. 

Falling at Jesus’ feet he says the two important words we are taught as children: “Thank you,” (Euchariston/εὐχαριστων). Giving thanks is a eucharistic event. Taking the eucharist is an act of Thanksgiving. Sin is the heart incurvatus en se as Luther said, turned in upon itself. Giving thanks is a sign that the heart is no longer turned inward, but now turned outward in joy and thanksgiving for God, life, love, Christ, the other. Ten were healed physically. One leper found more than physical healing. 

Jesus is not soft here. He lays it out in three rhetorical questions: “Were not ten cleansed? So, where are the other nine? Is no one going to praise God but this foreigner? Okay, son, move along. Your faith has made you well.” Namaan was also a “foreigner.”

 

Thoughts: 

  1. Jesus isn’t happy with a 10% return. In his parable of the sower and the seed, he seems to expect at least 25% of the seeds to fall on good soil and bear fruit. Only one out of ten lepers returning to praise God and give thanks catches Jesus’ attention.
  2. There is a running critique of Israel’s lack of faith in Luke. Foreigners consistently have more faith than Israelites. At times this even seems to surprise Jesus. The “foreigner” comment seems like a slam at first, but Jesus is pointing out for those around,  as he did in the Good Samaritan (Luke 10), that sometimes those of other cultures and religious traditions show more faith, compassion and hospitality than those we consider orthodox. Jesus, perhaps ironically, points out that this person is not one of the orthodox, righteous insiders. To wit: “Oh look, a heathen gives praise to God! Hmm. Where are the faithful?” Once again a scandalous Samaritan is made a hero in Luke. This must have irked some folks.
  3. “Your faith has made you well,” is actually “Your faith has saved you.” Sodzo is the verb (ἡ πίστις σουσέσωκένσε). Luke uses salvation language again. Salvation, not as life after death – pie in the sky when you die – but salvation in it’s fullness: one made whole, right with God, body and soul. Paul would say “justified.” Jesus is saying,”Your faith has made you right with God.” Here is justification by grace through faith, even in Luke with his rich/poor flip-flop theology of the afterlife.
  4. One cannot miss Jesus’ constant attention to those on the margins of society. Those who are ostracized and left behind. This is the ministry to which Jesus calls the church. 

 

One can see why this used to be a Thanksgiving Day text. Gratitude is a sign of salvation here. 

The leper’s salvation is revealed by his turning to praise God and give thanks. Meister Eckhardt’s words (my second favorite German heretic) have stuck with me all these years: “If the only prayer you ever prayed was ‘Thank you,’ it would be enough.” Having a heart of gratitude, a heart that explodes in praise of God, these are signs of salvation. Luke’s Jesus will use similar words with Zaccheus two chapters later after Zach gives half his stuff away: “Today salvation has come to this household.” 

Today. Gratitude, generosity and joy are signs that salvation is here. Now.

 

Pentecost 15, Proper 20, Lectionary 25 – September 22, 2019

Jeremiah 8:18 – 9:1My joy is gone, grief is upon me, my heart is sick. Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why then has the health of my poor people not been restored?
OR
Amos 8:4-7 – Hear this, you that trample on the needy, and bring to ruin the poor of the land, saying, “When will the new moon be over so that we may sell grain; and the sabbath, so that we may offer wheat for sale? We will make the ephah small and the shekel great, and practice deceit with false balances, 6buying the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals, and selling the sweepings of the wheat…”

Psalm 79:1-9 – The nations have laid ruin to Jerusalem and given our bodies to the birds. How long, O Lord, will you kindle your anger against us?
OR
Psalm 113 – Praise the name of the Lord, from the rising of the sun to its setting. He raises the poor from the dust and the needy from the ashes. 

1 Timothy 2:1-7 – I wish everyone to raise up their hands without anger or argument. Pray for government leaders. For this is the will of God who wishes everyone to be saved.

Luke 16:1-13 – Parable of the Shrewd Manager. “And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.” Interpretation: Use your filthy, stinkin’ money to do some good in this life, so that in the next the poor will vouch for you.

September 23, 2005 is the anniversary of Hurricane Rita.

 

 

Preach at the Beach

 

Anna Carter Florence will be with us for our annual preaching retreat, coming up October 17. Feel free to drive in and out and make it a one-day event (8:30-4, $45). Or stay at Zion Retreat Center overnight Wednesday and/or Thursday ($45/night).

Register Here

 

 

 

Jeremiah and Amos: A Concern for the Poor

 

Jeremiah mentions the poor three times in chapter 18. Amos offers an even more stern warning for those of us who are rich. Here is 8:4-7 in its entirety: 

4 Hear this, you that trample on the needy,
and bring to ruin the poor of the land,

5 saying, “When will the new moon be over
so that we may sell grain;
and the sabbath,
so that we may offer wheat for sale?
We will make the ephah small and the shekel great,
and practice deceit with false balances,

6 buying the poor for silver
and the needy for a pair of sandals,
and selling the sweepings of the wheat.”

7 The Lord has sworn by the pride of Jacob:
Surely I will never forget any of their deeds.


We have here a critique of those who take advantage of the poor. Think of outrageously obscene interest rates. Amos speaks of shady business practices, like rigging the scales so the wheat looks heavier than it is, therefore costing more. And using wheat mixed with the dust of the threshing floor. Cheating those who are desperately poor. Can there be anything more despicable? 

A few verses later, Amos announces some of the consequences (verse 10):

I will turn your feasts into mourning,
and all your songs into lamentation;

I will bring sackcloth on all loins,
and baldness on every head;

I will make it like the mourning for an only son,
and the end of it like a bitter day.

Wow, baldness on every head. Isn’t that a bit harsh?

This is a continuation of some of Amos’ earlier warnings, like this from chapter 6 (verses 1, 4-7):

Alas all who are at ease in Zion… 

4 Alas for those who lie on beds of ivory,
and lounge on their couches,
and eat lambs from the flock,
and calves from the stall;

5 who sing idle songs to the sound of the harp,
and like David improvise on instruments of music;

6 who drink wine from bowls,
and anoint themselves with the finest oils,
but are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph!

7 Therefore they shall now be the first to go into exile,
and the revelry of the loungers shall pass away.

Can we proclaim the gospel without proclaiming the law? Does this stern warning not need to be heard? 

 

 

 

Luke 16: Wealth and Discipleship

The Bible reminds us that we brought nothing into this world, and we can take nothing out of it. There are no hearses towing U-Hauls. The love of money is the root of all evil. So, just to be safe, be rich in good works, generosity, and sharing.

Just a reminder, we are in the midst of a series of stewardship texts:

This week we begin four weeks of parables from the Gospel of Luke, most of which are incredible stewardship texts. Faith and finances: 

September 15, 2019 – 1 Timothy 1:12-17 – Parable of the Lost Sheep and Lost Coin
September 22 2019 – 1 Timothy 2:1-7 – Parable of the Shrewd Manager
September 29, 2019 – 1 Timothy 6:6-19 – Parable of Rich Man and Lazarus
October 6, 2019 – 2 Timothy 1:1-14 – Parable of the Mustard Seed (undeserving slaves)


I love this week’s peculiar gospel story, which only appears in Luke’s gospel. Jesus tells a fable that praises a scoundrel. We are told to make friends for ourselves by means of dishonest wealth (ἀδίκῳ μαμωνᾷ). This is a curious passage, one that is certain to leave listeners scratching their heads a little bit.

Let it bother them for a while. 

Then Jesus said to the disciples, “There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property. 2 So he summoned him and said to him, ‘What is this that I hear about you? Give me an accounting of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.’ 3 Then the manager said to himself, ‘What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. 4 I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.’ 5 So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ 6 He answered, ‘A hundred jugs of olive oil.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.’ 7 Then he asked another, ‘And how much do you owe?’ He replied, ‘A hundred containers of wheat.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill and make it eighty.’ 8 And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. 9 And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth] so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.

10 “Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. 11 If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? 12 And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own? 13 No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”

This parable is perplexing on several counts. Jesus praises a dishonest steward. He tells his followers to use dirty money to make friends in this life, so that in the next, they might return the favor. It’s edgy. This is, in part, some of its power. Don’t explain it away. “Hey everyone, Jesus said we should make friends for ourselves by means of dishonest wealth! Take that and chew on it a little bit.”

 

This is the zinger: 

make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth,
so that when it is gone,
they may welcome you into the eternal homes.

A little digging and it gets clearer. Use your filthy money, your dishonest wealth, to make friends with the poor, so that when you kick the bucket, and the tables are turned in the eschaton, the poor might just welcome you into eternity. One gets the impression that Jesus believes the poor are in charge of the hereafter, and that no one gets to heaven without a letter of recommendation from the poor. As the world’s wealthy, in a capitalistic society, we squirm when Jesus tells us that our eternal destination may be affected by our use of wealth, and our relationship with the poor in this life.

Then, in verse 11 he says, “If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, why on earth would God trust you with true riches?” Apparently, your money does not constitute “true riches.” If not, then what are true riches? You might get your people thinking about that. 

“You cannot serve both God and wealth.” So choose whom you shall serve…

Squirm away. Next week it gets worse. Much worse.

In next week’s gospel (also peculiar to Luke), a rich man, with purple garb and linen paraments, lives much like the ones mentioned in Amos. Meanwhile Lazarus is poor, starving to death and diseased. He is dressed in sores, which the dogs lick. Nice. Jesus has a gift for vivid imagery. (If your eye causes you to sin, tear it out…) Lazarus longs to eat the rich man’s scraps. I’m mindful here of all the food we scrape into the garbage in American society. Both the rich man and Lazarus die. Lazarus is carried into Abraham’s bosom. The unnamed rich person goes to Hades.

As I said, it gets worse. But one week at a time. Let’s take this story bit by bit. It seems to me this is the kind of story that begs a line-for-line exposition. It’s simply too fun to pass up. 

 

Then Jesus said to the disciples, “There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property. 

The word for manager here is οἰκονόμον, “oikonomon.” This is the word from which we get our word “economy.” “Oikos” is the word for house. “Nomos” means law. The “oikonomia” is the law of the house. Oikonomos gets translated steward/stewardship, manager, treasurer, administrator, or sometimes superintendent. The “oikonomos” was the city treasurer. In this case it refers to the manager of a wealthy owner’s estate. Mikeal Parsons, (“Luke” in the Paieia series) suggests it would have been understood that this was a domestic slave. Perhaps an accountant. The rich man’s accountant has been either wasting funds from the estate or embezzling. Read “mismanagement” at the best, employee theft, misappropriation of funds, or embezzlement at the worst. 

So he summoned him and said to him, ‘What is this that I hear about you? Give me an accounting of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.’

The proverbial cat is out of the bag. Someone has blown the whistle. “You cannot be my manager any longer,” is basically this: “You’re fired.” Hand me the books and collect your things. “Bad steward.” In the story of the Prodigal Son (which immediately precedes this in Luke 15), the bad son is forgiven by the father, for no apparent reason other than the love of the Father. What, the hearers must be wondering, will happen to the bad steward?

Then the manager said to himself, ‘What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. 

Drawing on Aesop: Falsely Accused Trickster, Parsons points out the narrative never concludes whether the manager is actually guilty or not. This could be a familiar narrative of the falsely accused slave. History is replete with such fables and actual occurrences. One need only consider the number of black men lynched for allegedly molesting or disrespecting white women during the lynching era. Slaves and servants are vulnerable to such accusations. 

Guilty or not, what is the slave to do now? “I’ve lost my job.” Two options: dig or beg. Manual labor or abject poverty. With weak back and strong pride, the shrewd manager decides neither are good choices, and starts to hatch a plan. Jesus, the master storyteller, has them on the edge of their seats. What will the steward do? How will he survive?

I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.’ So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ He answered, ‘A hundred jugs of olive oil.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.’ Then he asked another, ‘And how much do you owe?’ He replied, ‘A hundred containers of wheat.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill and make it eighty.’ 

It’s a clever ploy. This is why some companies make you collect your things immediately and have security usher you out the door. Once you know you’re done, you have nothing to lose. Anything is possible. 

The manager does some major favors for his master’s debtors, at the master’s expense. As if a fire sale, the accountant cuts the debtors’ debts drastically, some by 50%. He isn’t fired yet. Once fired, hopefully one of those clients will be grateful, and he’ll be offered a job. Once again, the steward/accountant/manager does more of what he what he may have already been doing: cooking the books, to his advantage. 

The listeners know what’s coming next: the master’s rage.

And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. 

But wait! Not angry? Here is the surprise in Jesus’ story. Instead of flying into a rage at this impertinent employee, the master laughs a hearty guffaw. “Well played, steward. Well played.” The master is shrewd as the manager is shrewd. The master is impressed. Worldly business owners and worldly business managers are a heck of a lot smarter than the children of light, Jesus points out. Pay attention. 

Parsons points out:

…the manager’s action effectively puts the master into a corner: the relieved debtors will be so full of gratitude and praise for the master for his unexpected generosity that either the master has to risk great bitterness by disowning the steward’s action, or he is forced, whatever he really feels privately, to praise the steward for his action… In this sense, the story is again part of the larger stock of slave-as-trickster stories… (Parsons, Luke, loc. 6118)

Then the punch line:

So I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes. 

Is Jesus telling people to be dishonest in their business practices? Of course not, Augustine attests. Anyone listening to the story is smiling and laughing at Jesus’ humor. And if we tell the story in the sermon with just the right approach, the congregation will laugh too. 

We are all prodigal children and dishonest managers. There is no question that we ourselves fall short of God’s righteousness. But here in this story, there is hope for the unrighteous. If you cannot be perfect, then at least be generous. Your money is tainted, yes, but use it for good. You may be rich by the world’s standards, yes, so take what you have been given and show great generosity to the poor, then when you get to heaven, to that great flip-flop where the first are last and the last are first, and you are the homeless one, maybe one of the poor to whom you were generous will take you in. You never know. 

Preparation for the next life includes careful stewardship of resources in this life.

 

It’s a great story. Squirm away, but it’s a great story. 

Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own?

Life on earth is a trial run, Jesus seems to be saying. If you are faithful with petty earthly wealth, God might entrust to you the riches of the kingdom. Jesus is not so hyper-spiritual that he doesn’t see the value in being faithful with our assets. He understands our relationship to mammon is a reflection of our relationship with God. If money is your god, it will lead to a different set of priorities than if God is your God. 

No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.

And there it is. Choose which master you wish to serve. There is, for Jesus, a clear relationship between how people handle earthly and spiritual things.

What’s the good news here? Jeffrey (“Luke“) suggests an answer. In this flip-flop universe that Jesus proposes, what are we who are rich to do? Make no mistake, we are the rich. We are the upper 5% in the world. If you have fresh drinking water, a roof over your head, an automobile, at least one meal today, you are doing well by global standards. If it’s true what Jesus says, that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven, then what hope is there for us? 

The story of Zaccheus in Luke 19 offers a suggestion. Jesus enters Jericho and goes right over to the wealthiest guy in town, who has by his own admission (19:8) gotten his money by cheating others. In the end Zaccheus gives half of his dishonest wealth to the poor and repays those he has cheated times four. This is not law. This is above and beyond what the law requires. This is gospel. Then Jesus says something astonishing, “Today salvation has come to this house.” Generosity is not in itself salvation, but it is a sign that salvation has taken hold, and ones heart is right with God. Generosity is a fruit of salvation. 

 

The good news is, God has a heart for scoundrels. 

The good news is God saves the rich, too.

And there are clear signs when this happens. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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