Advent 1b, December 3, 2017

December 5, 2017

Urgently Present

Mark 13:24-37


24 “But in those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, 25 and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. 26 Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory. 27 Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven. 28 “From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. 29 So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. 30 Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. 31 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. 32 “But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 33 Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. 34 It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. 35 Therefore, keep awake–for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, 36 or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. 37 And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”


Our text this morning is a portrayal of the culmination of life as we know it. The paragraphs prior to this passage portray a frightening scenario of what is to occur, but this morning’s text makes reference to the ultimately good ending, and the primary message seems to be for us to pay attention.


Announcing my retirement isn’t exactly an apocalyptic pronouncement, but I’m you might say I’ve announced the end of life as I currently know it. I think I know what I’m doing, and I think I’m going to be happy being on the other side of the pulpit on Sunday mornings, but I might become a bucket of goo. Time will tell. But I do know the day and hour this will happen, so in that sense it’s sort of the opposite of an apocalyptic event. It’s more like the turning of a page.


The startling thing to me is not that I’m ready to retire from preaching. The amazing thing to me is that I’ve had a career in ministry. I think I may have said this before, but it occurred to me a few years ago that my journey into ministry was largely fueled by my anxiety about global nuclear destruction. I didn’t exactly live in constant fear of nuclear annihilation, but it felt possible. I wasn’t hopeless about the situation, but my decision to go to seminary was driven more by my sense that the end was near than it was by a career plan.


You may think I’m retiring early, but the amazing thing is that I made it through the first year. I remember very clearly approaching the first Sunday of Advent in my first year of ministry and having a bit of a panic attack over how the whole Advent candle ritual was supposed to work. I didn’t study church liturgy when I was in seminary, and I didn’t really know how to design a worship service. The Advent Candle ritual was a challenge for me. I thought there was probably a firm tradition of what each candle was supposed to represent and I didn’t know what it was. I came to understand that there is a wide variety of traditions surrounding the Advent wreath, but I felt pretty lost about that and many other things.


Prepping for each Sunday felt a lot like a preparing for a disaster to me. In seminary I had learned a little bit about church history, the Bible, and how the United Methodist Church was organized, but I pretty much shared all my special knowledge within the first month of my first appointment.


I love the United Methodist Church, and I love being a part of a church. I would even say I feel called to be in ministry, but I am not what you would call a natural born preacher. I told you in my first sermon that I’m not normal, and I’m still not normal. People have asked me if working at the food pantry has worn me out, and the answer to that is no. Heavy lifting comes natural to me – preparing for worship is what I call hard work. Three years may seem like a short time for me to be your pastor, but I’m telling you, it’s amazing I made it through the first three months of my career in ministry. I didn’t really know what I was doing then, and I still don’t really know how to do what I’m doing. But I’m not confused about why we gather each Sunday to do what we do.


What I know is that I need to try to pay attention to God, and I’m guessing that’s why you are here as well. This world is hard and there are so many things that don’t make sense. Life is precarious and unfair and painful and I can only deal with it by believing that God is with us and that we will be ok if we will look to God and trust in God.


This is not to say that life isn’t also beautiful and amazing and joyful, but you never know which side of the coin is going to turn up. One day life is great and the next day something unbearable drops in your life. We aren’t generally as urgent to get close to God when things are going well, but it’s so good to know a little something about the creator of the universe when our own little worlds collapse.


Our scripture lesson this morning directs our thinking toward the end of time as we know it. It’s sort of a confrontation to the way we generally live our lives. There are those moments in our lives when we are in a bit of a crisis mode, and this scripture is probably more accessible to those who are living in places where the world has been rocked in powerful ways. I’m thinking this passage is probably the most comforting to those who’s lives have been totally disrupted by the death of a loved one, the destruction of a home, the loss of livelihood, the prognosis of disease, the onslaught of war or a combination of the above, and that’s when we need to hear these words of eternal comfort.


It’s not as easy for me to think of the world coming to an end as it was in the late seventies, but the reality of life getting disrupted in an absolute way is something I have seen over and over. I know that there’s no end to the ways people’s lives get torn up, but I also know that there’s no limit to the way in which God comes to people with healing and hope.


The season of Advent is that period of time in which we try to prepare our hearts and minds for the birth of Christ in to our lives once again, and the truth is that this is probably easier to do when we are in touch with our need for Christ to be present in our lives. And that’s one of the gifts that my career in ministry has provided for me. Preaching has sort of imposed a weekly crisis upon me. You might say I’ve been regularly forced to take a close look at something Jesus said and did, and that’s a great thing to have to do. It’s also caused me to cry out to Jesus on a regular basis. I may not come up with a powerful message each week, but I usually get a powerful message.


Preaching is something that will generate a little urgency in your heart to pay attention to the way Christ is alive in this world. I don’t think my desire to find Jesus will expire when I retire, but I know that this work of preaching and leading worship has made me be more attentive to the presence of Christ in this world than I would have been, and I’m grateful for that.


But that sense of urgency comes in a lot of different ways, and I’m ready for a new way to pay attention. Of course the things that create urgency and cause us to pay attention aren’t always so welcome. When we were in New York over Thanksgiving we spent a wonderful evening walking around the streets of New York. Our son gave us a great tour of the places he frequented and then we ended up walking through a good portion of Central Park. It had been a really pleasant evening until that rat appeared at the side of the path. I think the sight of a rat is disconcerting to most of us, but they are particularly unsettling to Sharla. She couldn’t hardly hear a sound after that without thinking we were about to encounter another one.


And she probably wasn’t wrong to be so alarmed. I think I’ve heard there could be as many as five rats per person in NYC, but I can testify that they are pretty good about staying out of sight. That one was sort of slow to get out of the way, but it only takes one to make you pay attention.


Those things that cause us to pay attention to the presence of Christ are often unwelcome, but it’s hard not to think of them as gifts. We United Methodists aren’t known for our urgency to be prepared for the end of the world, but that doesn’t mean we are oblivious to the presence of God’s grace in our lives. I ran in to a friend from a former church in St. Vincent’s as I was on my way to see Jeff Ellis, and she told me of the near death experience she had recently experienced. She was well on the way to full recovery, but she had nearly died. She’s still in the middle of recovery, but she was about as happy as I’ve ever seen her. She had come to feel that every day was a new gift.


I don’t think God wants us to live in a state of paranoia about the uncertainty of tomorrow, but whatever it is that causes us to recognize the value of each day is good thing. I have no regret that I went to seminary in hope of getting to know a bit more about Jesus before nuclear annihilation. We don’t really get to choose the things that move us to seek the loving presence of Jesus Christ, and in many cases those things are terribly painful, but Jesus Christ doesn’t fail to come. Jesus doesn’t take all our pain away, but his love enables us to find life in the midst of whatever we face.


As we begin this season of Advent, our scripture points to the way in which we never know the time or place in which we will encounter the coming of Christ. Today’s passage is a call to pay attention to the opportunity we have right now to experience the essence of true life.


As we light the Advent Candles over the course of the next few weeks we’ll be talking about things like joy, and peace, and love, and hope (If I remember correctly). I think these are things we all yearn to experience, and while I don’t want to be frightening, I think this passage serves to warn us that if we aren’t careful we can miss opportunities to experience these essential spiritual gifts.


Authentic urgency isn’t an easy thing to generate. When you try to generate urgency it usually comes out as fear, and I’m not wanting to go there, but I do hope we are all in touch with a healthy sense of urgency to be close to the life-giving presence of God. Announcing my retirement has already had a funny impact on me in this way. Seven months isn’t exactly a short period of time, but knowing that there will be an end to this regular exercise of preaching has created some urgency within me to get it right. It’s always been a bit of an exercise in desperation, but I’m feeling more urgency than desperation about it now, and that’s a nice change for me.


Whatever it is that causes us to be watching for Christ is a good thing, and I trust that God knows how to communicate this good message to each of us. Christ is alive! And Christ is coming!

Thanks be to God! Amen.



December Newsletter Article

December 2, 2017

Here’s The Thing

I’m about to share the most personally significant piece of news I’ve ever provided for a newsletter article. This is the time of the year churches and pastors are to inform the Bishop of their wishes for the  next appointment year, and I’ve made a large decision. I’ve decided to retire. I’m guessing this may come as a surprise to many of you, and I’m sorry to initiate change when things seem to be going well, but I’ve got to follow the instruction of my heart.

Now the truth is that I’ve had a great sense of satisfaction with my work here, and your hospitality has been exceptional. From the very beginning of my time here I’ve been telling my friends and peers that this is the most well-functioning church I’ve ever served. I have no complaint about what you’ve expected me to do, and I feel very well appreciated, but I’ve simply run out of gas. It isn’t the three years I’ve spent here that has left me feeling weary of the work – it’s the three decades that have caught up with me. I know there are preachers who find ways to remain vital and vibrant for more than 31 years, but I’m not one of those. I’m ready for a change, and I’m grateful that retirement is an option for me.

Many of you know that our daughter, son-in-law, and granddaughter will be moving back to Little Rock next summer, and we’re excited about being able to live close to them, but that’s more of a happy coincidence than the primary factor in my decision. I’m retiring because I’ve lost a degree of passion for the work that this job requires a person to have. It’s not that I’ve lost my love for Jesus, for you, or for the success of the UMC, but passion can be defined as creative energy, and that’s what’s running short within me. Leading worship and guiding the program of a church requires a level of focus, desire, and energy that I simply no longer possess. Preaching isn’t much like being a linebacker in the NFL, but in both cases you need to get off the field when you aren’t all in, and frankly speaking, I’m not. There are aspects of this work that I could do forever, but I no longer have the kind of fire in my belly that church leadership in this day and age requires.

So as of June 30, Sharla and I will be moving back to Little Rock where I will embark on life outside of appointed ministry, and a new pastor will be appointed here. I’m not finished yet – I’ve got a good seven months of energy left within me and a significant list of things I hope to accomplish before I pass the baton. At that point I will become your former pastor, but I hope you will keep me on as a friend. I really am sorry for creating the kind of uncertainty that comes with pastoral change, but I’m trusting that this can be a good thing for everyone involved. I hope you can feel this way as well.



The Season Finale

Matthew 25:31-46


31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, 33 and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. 34 Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35 for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ 37 Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38 And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39 And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ 40 And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ 41 Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; 42 for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ 44 Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ 45 Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ 46 And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”


You probably didn’t arrive at church this morning with the anticipation of a season finale, but I want you to try to think of today in that way. I know our worship service doesn’t have all the entertainment value of the season ending episode of a cherished television series, but today is the last Sunday of Year A in the lectionary cycle. Of course the lectionary is a three year cycle that’s been going on for several centuries, and we all sort of know the story, so it doesn’t really have the element of surprise that comes with a final episode of a television drama or comedy, but it’s a powerful story that manages to provide us with ongoing inspiration and confrontation.


Today’s text invites us to hear the way in which our lives are to be judged in an ultimate fashion, and I think there’s probably something here to provide us each with some comfort as well as some motivation to do better.


One of the things that I find to be comforting about this passage is the way in which the sheep, those who were directed toward the right hand of the King were all surprised to find themselves in the position of favor. They weren’t really aware of the way in which they had done things that were pleasing to God. And I’m guessing this is the way it is with most of us – it’s probably the unconscious ways in which we provide comfort and aid to others that is the most pleasing to God.


Of course there’s also the possibility that we aren’t very aware of the all the ways in which we fail to love and serve our neighbors and consequently disappoint the King. I’m guessing a case could be brought against most of us in regard to the ways in which we have ignored the needs of our neighbors. I’m reminded of the final episode of what might be one of the greatest comedy series of all time – Seinfeld. Sharla and I were sort of slow to catch on to the show during it’s original run, but we got caught up, and we never pass up the opportunity to watch a rerun. I’m not suggesting that you go watch the show if you aren’t familiar with it. It probably doesn’t meet the criteria for what John Wesley would call edifying material, but it does serve as sort of a reverse morality play. You can learn a lot about what not to do by watching an episode of Seinfeld.


The four main characters in this show are all clearly flawed in wonderful ways, and their various foibles are relentlessly exposed. I wouldn’t call any of them malicious, nor do they ever really set out to do any harm, but they are generaly pretty conniving and shallow. You might say they are primarily guided by insecurity, lust, greed, laziness, impatience, arrogance, and a very refined form of stupidity. It’s a great show. Watching an episode of Seinfeld always leaves me feeling better.


It was a sad day when the series came to an end, but I thought it had a great ending. The four main characters ended up in court for violating the Good Samaritan Law. They were caught on video laughing at a man who was the victim of a petty crime, and they were taken to court where the prosecution was able to bring before the court a long line of witnesses who could testify to their consistent failures and misguided agendas. I think you could say Jerry, Kraemer, George and Elaine served as perfect examples of those who were assembled at the left hand of God, but in their case the final judgement was that they never failed to deliver good comedy.


But today isn’t a final episode – today is a more of a season finale, so we don’t have to wait for months for a new season to begin. Often a season ending episode will end with some unresolved drama that will keep your interest high in what will happen in the next season. And you might say that this morning’s text has an element of cliff-hanging drama for us. But it isn’t the characters in the text that we are concerned about, Jesus told this story in order for us to have some concern for ourselves. Like some of the other stories we’ve heard from Jesus, this passage makes it clear that there is this possibility of missing out on the joy of abundant life and of falling in to the abyss.


As I mentioned earlier, the thing that speaks to me in this passage is the way in which everyone was surprised by the judgement of the King. The people who were revealed to be the sheep were as surprised as the people who were labeled as goats. This enterprise of Christianity doesn’t work by promoting ourselves in any way – it’s all about the way we respond to each other when we aren’t calculating the benefit for ourselves.


This King we call Jesus isn’t interested in the way we parade our faith – our King is watching for the way in which we connect our professed love for God with love for our neighbors. Jesus had little use for words of praise that were disconnected from acts of love for hurting neighbors. The essence of what Jesus taught doesn’t get much clearer than what we see in today’s passage.


This passage is a little clearer than I like to be in regard to the Final Episode of our individual lives. It’s not easy to reconcile my image of God as being unconditionally loving with this portrayal of the One who sees us as sheep or goats. There’s something hard for me to hear in this passage. I’m reminded of all those nameless men and women I walked past on the streets of New York who were huddled with all of their belongings in a pile beside them and a relatively empty cup of coins.


Of course it’s pretty easy for me to justify my need to ignore their need. It would be impossible to function if we felt like we had to respond to every need that came our way. I don’t believe there’s an easy formula for us to develop to guide us through the challenge of balancing our call for compassion with our need to operate, but I think this passage serves to prevent any of us from claiming any special relationship with the Lord of Life. The way we are judged has little to do with the way we think of ourselves – both the righteous and the doomed were surprised by the way they were seen by God.


Jesus didn’t cherish the people who set out to impress him. Jesus valued the people who loved their neighbors unconsciously. They weren’t after the reward, they didn’t even know how greatly they were serving God when they reached out to those who were cast aside.


I really don’t think Jesus told this story to put fear in our hearts of landing in the wrong place when we reach our Final Episode. If anything I think he wanted to undermine the way some religious people are inclined to define the categories of who is in and who is out of God’s favor. There is some powerful judgement revealed in this passage, but it primarily serves to cut down on the way we exercise judgement over one another. And the way Jesus tells the story there’s just no room for any of us to lord ourselves over others. We have all fallen short of loving each other as well as we can.


Jesus was nearing the final episode of his season on earth when he spoke these words. He was dealing with some people who considered themselves to be overly important in God’s administration, and Jesus told this story in order to deal a deathly blow to their willful ignorance of God’s actual desire. Being self-righteous isn’t the only way to offend God, but Jesus made it clear that this is something God always finds to be offensive.


What I find in this parable is what I almost always find from looking closely at Jesus – which is both comfort and confrontation. I’m happy to hear that our relationship with God has little to do with how well we know how to articulate the finest points of Christian theology. I’m not so happy to recall those moments when I’ve failed to say anything to someone who was hurting, or to provide water to someone who was thirsty.


It’s hard for me to read this passage without feeling the sting of judgement, but I think we should also hear that there are moments when we unwittingly provide God with great pleasure. I suspect that few of us fully embody the sheep or the goats. I think we probably all continue to surprise God with our capacity to extend grace as well as our ability to harden our hearts.


George, Jerry, Elaine and Kraemer never did the right thing, but they hold a dear place in my heart. This probably says a lot about the twisted nature of my heart, but I’m guessing God also has the capacity to see who we really are regardless of what we seem to do. Jesus was very clear about what is most important, but he knows who he’s dealing with, and he loves us anyway.


Gratefully this isn’t the Final Episode. There’s another season coming up, and by the grace of God we will become a little less self-righteous, a little more compassionate, and a whole lot more grateful for the love of Jesus Christ, our Lord, Savior, and King!

Thanks be to God! Amen.


Proper 28a, Nov. 19, 2017

November 20, 2017

Strategic Investment

Matthew 25:14-30


14 “For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; 15 to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. 16 The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. 17 In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. 18 But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money. 19 After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. 20 Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.’ 21 His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ 22 And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.’ 23 His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ 24 Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, ‘Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; 25 so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’ 26 But his master replied, ‘You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? 27 Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. 28 So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. 29 For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. 30 As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’


There was a time when I thought I might become a stock-market genius. Actually there were two times. The first time was when I first learned about mutual funds and I came to believe that if you had any available money you should put it in a mutual fund. I convinced the members of my extended family who are involved in a family farm corporation that we should move a CD we had in the bank in to a mutual fund. This was around 1999, and I did look like I knew what I was talking about for about a year. Then the bubble burst, and I think we ended up with about a quarter of the value of our original CD.


That experience trimmed my interest in the stock market for a few years, but then I heard a great interview on National Public Radio with a guy who wrote a book called: The Little Book That Beats The Market by Joel Greenblatt. I bought and read his book, and I was convinced he had a sound strategy. He made it clear that it wasn’t a magic formula, but it made sense and I became convinced that in time I could turn our meager portfolio in to a small fortune. To the dismay of our financial planner I became actively involved in the investment process and I began to follow the strategy that Mr. Greenblatt advocated. Once again, I enjoyed watching the numbers improve in an impressive way for about a year and a half, but then the housing bubble burst, and energy prices fell, and my own little bubble burst.


Consequently, I have lost my illusions of beating the market. I am reconciled with the idea of experiencing average returns on my investments. I’m basically grateful to have a little something to invest, and I’ve developed the wisdom to not count on extraordinary growth. You might say my expectations have been conditioned by my experience, and I guess that’s often the way it goes.


My late father in law, Dr. Charles Chalfant, began his medical practice in Rogers about the time that Sam Walton had unfortunately lost the lease on his building in Newport and moved to Bentonville. They weren’t friends, but they had become acquainted, and when Sam Walton began trying to put together investors for his new enterprise he approached my father in law about investing in his new idea. Unfortunately, for Charlie, and the rest of his family, he had recently been burned by someone else who had approached him with some kind of a real estate deal that had gone badly and caused him to loose some money, and he had no appetite for investing in another unproven enterprise.


The good news about that lost opportunity is that Charlie was a really good doctor, and he probably wouldn’t have worked as hard and as long as he did if he had made the kind of fortune that an early investment in Walmart would have generated. I think it can be argued that many people benefitted from his long career as a family practice doctor. You can always find a way to become philosophical about a painful loss.


I don’t believe Jesus was offering financial counseling when he told this parable, but he used money in order to get our attention. And money does get our attention — especially when you speak of great sums of money. A talent was actually a coin that very few people would ever have seen. A talent was worth 10,000 denarii, and the average annual wage was about 60 denarii, so one talent was about fifteen year’s worth of wages.


Large sums of money get our attention, and Jesus knew this. It’s something that most of us have strong feelings about, and while we are often inclined to think that a huge some of money would be the solution to most of the problems we face in life — Jesus was not one of those people. Jesus simply used a story about a vast amount of money to illustrate the thing we really need to have in order to live an abundant life. Or maybe I should say he told this parable to illustrate the thing we can’t have if we want to enter in to the joy of God’s presence. And the thing that can be the largest obstacle to our relationship with God is fear.


In this parable, Jesus portrays God as being a lot like a Sam Walton character – which is not an uncommon image of God for Jesus to use. Jesus often portrayed God as being loaded. Jesus once described God as being the owner of the vineyard where the workers were paid in an exorbitant manner, he portrayed God in another parable as being the absentee landlord of a beautiful vineyard, and he often portrayed God as the One who throws elaborate feasts and weddings. Even though Jesus didn’t live like the son of a powerful CEO, I think Jesus wanted us to think of God as being the major stockholder in the most important corporation that exists. Making money wasn’t a high priority for Jesus, but he did want us to understand the value of the work we have been called to do, and he wanted us to be aggressive in the way we use what we have.


When Jesus speaks of this man who gave tremendous amounts of money to his servants and then left for a long period of time I understand Jesus to be saying that God entrusts people like you and I with resources of incredible value, and God wants our trust in return. In this parable, even the servant who was given the least was given a tremendous amount of money. Jesus was not wanting us to think that God actually conducts business with hard currency, but he was wanting us to understand the value of what we have been given, and he was wanting us to be aware of the way in which we use what we have.


The parable portrays two ways of dealing with what has been entrusted to us, and of course one way is much better than the other way. One way was guided by trust, and the other way was guided by fear. The first two servants took what they had been given and went to work with it. The third servant didn’t go to work – he did nothing but try to preserve what he had.


Of course what I can’t help but wonder is how the master would have responded if one of the servants had gone to work with the money but had made some untimely investments. I guess that would have been a different parable with a different truth conveyed. All we have is what we’re told in this parable, and it could be that what Jesus wanted to reveal was the unfailingly positive aspect of working with the resources that God provides. Maybe the point is that when you work with the master’s capital you always come out ahead. The only way to misappropriate God’s investment is to bury it. There is risk involved in putting God’s resources to work, but that risk is to our temporary standing in society, not to our relationship with God.


When it’s only money that’s invested there is always a chance the deals will go sour and money will be lost. The talents that were given to the servants were coins, but those coins represent the capital that God invests within us that produces bountiful yields whenever it’s put to work.  The only foolish thing we can do with the things God has given us is to sit on them and hope that the only thing God wants is for us to preserve what we have received.


Sam Walton didn’t become one of the richest men in the world by choosing assistants who knew how to preserve his money. Sam Walton expected his executives to figure out how to move into new areas of merchandise and new locations for stores. I don’t want to draw many parallels between God and Sam Walton, but we would do well to carry out God’s will as well as Sam Walton’s executives have carried out his.


The unfortunate thing for us is that we often only measure value in dollars, and we tend to think that if we don’t have a large investment portfolio we don’t have anything to invest. It’s easy to think that money is the most powerful resource that exists, but that is not what Jesus taught. If accumulating money is the most essential enterprise Jesus was a dismal failure, but I don’t think anyone would argue that Jesus hampered by his lack of financial resources. There is something priceless and powerful within each of us, and Jesus wanted us to recognize this and to work with it.


I think we all know that money doesn’t buy happiness, and I have a friend who has seen this play out in a really vivid way. My friend is a pharmacist and for a while he worked for one of the pharmacy chains. He worked at more than one location, and he told me that it was amazing to compare the amount of antidepressant drugs that he dispensed at the store that was in the more affluent part of Little Rock compared to the store that was in a more financially stressed area of town, and it was in the affluent area of town that he dispensed the most anti-depressants. Now you can argue that it’s a bit of a luxury to have access to the type of medical care that would make anti-depressants available, and poor people don’t have as much access to mental health care, but it was clear to my friend that there are a lot of people who aren’t being made very happy by their money.


It’s not our financial investments that are going to make us happy or provide us with true life. And neither will our spiritual gifts if we are afraid to use them.



I don’t think it’s helpful for us to think that we earn our way into the Kingdom of God, but there seems to be a good parallel between making financial investments and investing ourselves. Just as an investor has little control over the price of a particular stock, we have little control over the value of the enterprises to which we give ourselves, but I think the odds are in our favor whenever we take the risk of investing ourselves. I think Jesus was saying that whenever we give of ourselves there is going to be an abundant reward.


Those first two servants trusted that things would turn out well if they worked with what God had given them and it did. The last servant didn’t seem to trust God. He made false assumptions about God, and it had the predictable consequence of a broken relationship with God.


You never know how things are going to turn out in those marketplaces we establish on earth. Certainly some people figure out how to beat the market in amazing ways, but few of us can factor in all of the financial variables that are at play in this world. Fortunately we don’t have to be great financial investors to experience the greatest dividend. Jesus made it clear that when we live with trust in God and give of ourselves in significant ways we have more than we can imagine and even more will be given. There is a way to squander this grand opportunity, and that is to have more fear of God than trust in God.


So have no fear – have trust, and invest yourself fully in this enterprise of following Jesus. It’s the deal of a lifetime and beyond.


Thanks be to God.


Proper 27a, November 12, 2017

November 13, 2017

Preparing For Life

Matthew 25:1-13


1 “Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. 2 Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. 3 When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; 4 but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. 5 As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. 6 But at midnight there was a shout, ‘Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ 7 Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. 8 The foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ 9 But the wise replied, ‘No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.’ 10 And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut. 11 Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ 12 But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I do not know you.’ 13 Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.


This is a nice passage of scripture for us to ponder this morning. You might say it’s a generous text because it points to the importance of living wisely and not foolishly, but it leaves a lot of room for interpretation. It doesn’t spell out exactly what it means to live wisely as opposed to living foolishly so we are challenged to decide what it means to live like those who were prepared and not like those who had to leave at the critical moment and who missed the glorious wedding.


Sometimes people will ask me what I preached about on a previous Sunday or what an upcoming sermon will be about, and that’s usually a difficult question for me to answer. Often I just can’t remember what my sermon was about or I’m not ready for my next sermon. But often I can’t say because I can’t sum it up in an easy manner. And that’s an unfortunate thing on my part. I think the best sermons are probably pretty easy to remember and describe.


You might not find this sermon to be particularly memorable or describable, but regardless of what I might or might not say, I’m going to declare early on that there’s a clear point to this sermon, and the point is that it’s better to be wise than to be foolish. Be wise – don’t be foolish. That’s some wisdom you can count on right there. I’m all for wisdom and I’m against foolishness. I’m not so clear about many things, but I’ve got this straight.


I know I’m right about this because I’ve done some foolish things. Maybe you have too.


I remember very clearly the night I was driving to Colorado with a couple of friends in my 1978 Chevy LUV pickup. We left Fayetteville on a New Year’s afternoon and we were going to drive through the night to Denver. We were on Interstate 70 in western Kansas around 2 in the morning when we noticed we needed some gas. What we hadn’t really paid attention to was how far apart the towns were way out there on the prairie. We exited at a small town and found the one gas station to be closed. We studied the map and decided we could make it to the next town, and we did, but that one gas station was closed as well.


A little bit of wisdom kicked in at that moment, and we decided not to head out in hope of making it to the next exit on a night that got down to about 15 degrees in a wind that seemed to cut straight through the thin metal skin of that truck, and we waited for about four hours for that gas station to open up. I believe that’s about as cold as I’ve ever been.


I know what those foolish bridesmaids felt like when they realized that they had not properly prepared for the event that was coming. I’m guessing most of us know how it feels to be caught unprepared or otherwise had our foolishness exposed.


Of course Jesus didn’t tell this story to warn us against those average forms of foolishness that leave us looking ridiculous. He wasn’t concerned that we would live in ways that would simply cause us to suffer some form of humiliation. Jesus told this story in order to focus our attention on the need for us to be prepared for life in the kingdom of God. Because he knew that the most foolish thing any of us to do is to live our lives without regard for our relationship with God.


What this text does is to highlight the importance of paying attention to what we need in order to abide in the Kingdom of God. This parable doesn’t give us clear instruction about what it means to have a reserve of oil for our lamps, but it makes it very clear that this is something we need. And I suppose our task is to discern what it means to have those spiritual reserves. Jesus didn’t answer that question with this story, but he made it very clear that if we don’t pay attention to this matter we’re going to miss the party. This is a story that very clearly illustrates the reality of divine opportunity and the consequences of spiritual failure.


I guess it can be argued that Jesus was talking about the destination of our eternal souls when he told this story. I’m sure there are people who use this parable to talk about what we will face on judgement day, and I’m not here to say they’re wrong to use it in that way. But I don’t believe that’s the only way to think of this parable. What I believe is that Jesus was wanting us to develop ourselves in such a way that we gain access to true life while we continue to breath the air of earth. I’m thinking there are after-life consequences for the way we conduct ourselves in this life, but I believe Jesus wanted us to realize that there are also some immediate consequences for the way we chose to live our lives.


I think there are probably a lot of people who are motivated to live right and to do the right thing in order to arrive at the right destination upon their completion of life, but I’m convinced Jesus wanted us to have some fear of missing out on the party that’s going on right now. Jesus wanted us to seek those reserves of oil for our lamps because we need them now.


This world isn’t an easy place for any of us to live. Certainly there are some nice experiences and beautiful places, but as Jesus so clearly illustrated through the course of his own life, our experience in this world can be filled with a lot of turmoil and conflict. Jesus didn’t seek turmoil and conflict, but he was very threatening to people who didn’t want God’s truth to be known, and that is often the case with people who do the work of God. This world can be particularly difficult for those who bring the light of God in to dark places, but I also believe that in the midst of trouble and conflict we can experience great peace and joy.


I believe that the gift of God’s reassuring presence is something that can come to us in this world, and that it often comes when we are in the midst of our greatest challenges. But I think we have to be properly prepared in order to fully appreciate those spiritual opportunities. I think we have to develop those reserves of spiritual oil in order to find calm when we find ourselves walking through one of life’s dark and dangerous valleys.


So what does it mean to be one of those wise people who has pursued a reserve of oil for their lamp? To put it very simply and generally, I believe a person with a reserve of oil for their lamp is a person who has sought the wisdom of God. A person with a reserve of oil for their lamp doesn’t confuse their relationship with God by the ups and downs of life on earth. A person with a reserve of oil is the person who knows that the most important thing in life is to develop a solid spiritual life. To live like one of those wise bridesmaids is to know the story of how God has been at work in this world from the beginning of time, and to do the good work of caring for others. To develop a reserve of oil is to develop an inner life that isn’t disrupted regardless of what’s going on with our outer lives.


Of course a mature inner life will inform the way we conduct our outer lives. I don’t believe our spiritual lives and our physical lives are disconnected from each other. I believe there’s an ongoing relationship between what’s going on within our souls and how we choose to live our lives. We don’t always have a lot of choice about where we are in life, but there’s always an opportunity of some kind to express the richness of our inner life, and I don’t believe our outward circumstances can ever prevent us from living a rich inner and outer life. We don’t all get to abide in the most choice accommodations, but that doesn’t mean we can’t fully express our love for God and our neighbors and that’s about the richest life we can ever live.


None of us have made perfect decisions in our lives. It’s easy for all of us to identify the ways in which we’ve been out looking for oil when it was time for the wedding to start, and of course it’s always good to recognize and to learn from those foolish paths on which we’ve found ourselves, but our primary task is to have some urgency to become the wise people that God created us to be.


It’s not easy to create the kind of urgency we need in order to pursue life in the kingdom of God. Sometimes it takes a brush with death or disaster to get our attention and to get us focused on the pursuit of abundant life. Sometimes it’s actually through those foolish things we do that enables us to recognize our need to seek the wisdom of God. It’s interesting the way these things play out in our lives. Some of the worst things that come our way actually put us in touch with the greatest spiritual opportunities.


Jesus told this parable because he wanted us to know that there is this possibility of living wise lives, and nobody was more aware of this than those women who found themselves without any oil at the critical moment. Unfortunately there are those situations in life that we can’t go back and do over. There is this possibility of finding ourselves without any oil at the critical moment, and those are terrible experiences, but there’s probably nothing more instructive than a terrible mistake.


I assure you I’m a lot more careful about keeping gas in my tank than I once was. I continue to find new ways to exercise some foolishness, but I also know that it’s a lot better to be wise than to be foolish. They say we get wiser as we get older, but I don’t think this is automatically true. I’m pretty sure it’s possible to live an entire life in a foolish way. The pursuit of true life is not something we stumble upon and accidentally find. It’s a gift, but it takes effort to understand it. Luckily, we aren’t on our own in this work. God wants us to get on the path to true life, and God is continually reaching out to us, but we’ve got to respond. We’ve got to want what God is offering, and we’ve got work to do in order to obtain it. Finding the course of true life requires us exercise courage, persistence, patience, sensitivity, and attention to all the ways in which God’s truth is made known to us.


This journey in to the kingdom of God is a difficult trek. But it’s the best opportunity we’ll ever be offered. To seek God’s kingdom is to choose the path of wisdom, and to step away from the humiliation and  despair that foolishness always provides.


Don’t get left out of the party! Study scripture, pray for wisdom, love God, serve your neighbors, and enjoy the banquet that God will provide!


Thanks be to God. Amen.

Proper 26a, November 5 2017

November 6, 2017

The Genuine Article

Matthew 23:1-12


1 Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, 2 “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; 3 therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach. 4 They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them. 5 They do all their deeds to be seen by others; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long. 6 They love to have the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, 7 and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have people call them rabbi. 8 But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all students. 9 And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father–the one in heaven. 10 Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah. 11 The greatest among you will be your servant. 12 All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.


There’s really nothing mysterious about this passage of scripture. While we don’t have an insider’s view of what the scribes and Pharisees were doing that upset Jesus, it’s not hard to understand the nature of the problem. You don’t have to know what the long fringe and the large phylacteries were all about in order to know that these people were full of themselves. It’s interesting to know about the fringes and phylacteries. It’s always good to understand the ways that previous generations of religious people turned sound teachings into foolish traditions, and this deal with the phylacteries and fringes was classic.


A phylactery is a small pouch that contains a small parchment with a few key verses from the Torah written upon it. Devout Jews then and now to some extent wear these pouches on their foreheads and on their wrists because there is this instruction in several places within the Torah to keep these key teachings as a mark on their hand and as a frontlet before their eyes. It’s not clear within the Old Testament verses whether or not this was to be taken literally or figuratively, but the Pharisees took it very literally and they wore extra-large versions. Their vision was sometimes impaired by the size of their phylacteries, which seems like perfect irony. Instead of practicing their faith in such a manner that their sense of understanding and vision expanded, they were actually blinded by their religiosity.


We would say that the Pharisees were familiar with the letter of the law but not the spirit. They were tragically misguided in the implementation of their faith. They were confused as to who the tradition was to glorify – which is a problem that seems to get recreated by each generation and religious tradition.


But before I smear the Pharisees too badly I want you to think about this: the Pharisaic movement developed within Judaism in much the same way the Methodist movement grew out of the Anglican Church. Some of the same sad dynamics existed within both of those religious environments that gave rise to these reform movements. Just as John Wesley was driven to confront the way in which Christianity had become an enclave for privileged members of 18th Century English society, the early leaders of the Pharisaic movement sought to turn Judaism in to a more vibrant exercise of faith for all the people of Israel instead of a dead set of practices that were carried out by the aristocratic priests.


The Pharisaic movement only came to life within Judaism about 150 years before Jesus was born, and it was very much a reformation movement. Around that time the faith of Israel was pretty much directed by elite members of Jewish society who were known as the Sadducees, and for the average person in Israel, proper observance of Judaism was reduced to showing up at the Temple for the major feasts of the year and making the proper sacrifices. Judaism was directed by the priests who were handed those privileged positions by the aristocratic leaders of the Sadducees. They only recognized the Torah, or the first five books of the Hebrew bible as being authoritative, and they didn’t recognize the value of any commentary on those books. Under those circumstances, the faith of Israel had become very static and removed from the hands of common people.


In a similar fashion, being a member of the Anglican Church in the early 1700s was largely an exercise in being a proper member of English society. There was very little effort to connect faith in God with life on earth. The role of the priest was to baptize and to bury those who were considered to be worthy of such attention. The church of England exhibited little interest in the physical or spiritual lives the impoverished members of society, and it offered little resistance to the social evils of the day – which were rampant.


It was in to a situation where faith in God had become largely divorced from any kind of outreach to the world that John Wesley came along and put the two back together. Consequently, he was largely shut out of the cathedrals of his day, but he created a huge movement among people who were hungry to hear the good news that Jesus Christ came for all people. Wesley was able to connect faith in God with a genuine form of piety. He was able to weave together worship and service in a way that was both inspirational and practical. John Wesley moved the church out in to the neighborhoods of the people who weren’t welcome in the cathedrals. He didn’t intend to start a new denomination within Christianity, but what he did was too large to be contained within the Anglican Church.


In a very similar way, the Pharisees had moved Judaism away from the Temple and in to the hands of the people. Some have described the Pharisaic movement was an exercise in democracy. It represented a movement away from a priestly led institution in to a movement among lay-people to study and to connect their faith with their daily lives. The Pharisees emphasized the importance of practices that anyone could do. Originally, the Pharisees were average members of society who sought to educate themselves on the Mosaic tradition, and they honored sacred writings other than the Torah. What the Pharisees taught was very appealing to the common people of Israel because it made the faith more accessible to anyone – at least at first. It clearly began as a reform movement, but by the time Jesus came along it had become a bit of a nightmare.


What started out as an exercise in encouraging people to learn and to study turned in to an institution that over-emphasized the importance of purity and imposed endless demands upon people. Instead of just going to the Temple two or three times a year to give the priest their due, the Pharisees called people out for all sorts of technical violations. It was the Pharisees who condemned Jesus for not washing his hands properly, and doing things like gathering food and healing on the Sabbath. That reform movement was in need of reformation by the time Jesus came along, but it grew out of something that once had vitality.


There aren’t perfect parallels between the Pharisees of Jesus’ day and the United Methodists of our day. For one thing, I think it’s a lot easier to be a Methodist than it was to be a Pharisee, but I think it’s worth noting that both of these groups began as reform movements within institutions that needed reformation. I’m happier to call myself a Methodist than to wear the label of a Pharisee – I’m proud to say we’ve got them beat when it comes to being less religiously pretentious, but I don’t think it’s ever easy to see self-deception.


The way the gospels are written it’s easy for us to see the ways in which the Pharisees wore their religion a bit too proudly. Matthew clearly wanted us to see the ways in which the Pharisees over-emphasized the wrong things and were ignorant of essential things, but for the most part they were people who were wanting to wear their religion well. There may well have been some who were consciously hypocritical – those who were out to maintain their position as leaders of the religious community regardless of what they knew to be true, but I’m guessing there were many Pharisees who were genuinely distressed by Jesus – of the way he violated what they believed to be essential aspects of their faith.


And frankly speaking, this is something that scares me about being an Elder in an institution that began as a movement. And I think it should all of us.


I know Halloween is over. I know I shouldn’t be trying to scare you this morning, but this is a scary passage of scripture! Jesus was warning us religious people not to be like the religious people of his day – people who wore the costume of faith in God without having the inner understanding of the undertaking. Jesus wanted us to be the genuine articles of faith.


Today is the day we celebrate All Saints Day in the church. It’s traditionally the day we acknowledge our loved ones who have passed away, and that’s an important thing that we do. We don’t know all the ways in which other people enrich our lives, but we do know we are touched by the lives of other people. Communities of faith in particular are guided by those who have gone before us, and while we know those who came before us weren’t perfect, we can learn a lot from the ways that others have lived. I think the reason we have such a day in the church is to acknowledge our debt to those who have provided light for our paths.


We have all been touched by many people in very personal ways, but there are some individuals who have been very influential over many of us. I’m mindful today of the way our spiritual ancestor, John Wesley, helped steer the Anglican Church away from being such a deadly club-like institution in to a vibrant community that helped people develop actual faith in God. John Wesley is truly one of the saints of our tradition, and one of the best contributions that he made to Christian theology is his emphasis on our ability to grow in faith.


Wesley rejected the notion of Christianity as being a static rank you obtained when you made the right confession. Wesley believed faith in Christ was the pursuit of a lifetime. He believed we could grow in our knowledge and understanding of God and that there was always more to be learned and experienced.


Wesley was an advocate of practicing what he called the means of grace, which included things like attending worship, reading scripture, partaking of Holy Communion, fasting, praying, attending to the needs of others, engaging in spiritually edifying conversation, and doing good work in general. Wesley believed it would help our spiritual lives develop if we would engage in the right physical activities, and I believe this as well.


You might argue that doing these outward things are really no different from what the Pharisees were doing when they wore garments and accessories that were supposed to remind them of what they were all about, and there’s probably some truth to that, but I think it would take an incredibly hard-hearted person to tend to the sick, visit the imprisoned, and feed the hungry on a regular basis without becoming a more gracious person.


Of course, there are no guaranteed avenues to faith. Our religious costumes can look a lot like genuine articles, but the joy of following Christ is not in looking right but in being right. It’s not the outward appearance that will bring us peace but the inward desire to love God and to serve one another.


It’s a high bar that’s been set before us. You might say our goal is to be more righteous than the Pharisees and more compassionate than the Wesleyans. Our hope is not to become official saints, but to join that endless list of unofficial saints who weren’t guided by the desire to look right, but who truly yearned to get it right.


Thanks be to God for providing us with the opportunity to wear those genuine articles of faith.



Rendered To Life

Matthew 22:15-22


15 Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said. 16 So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. 17 Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” 18 But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? 19 Show me the coin used for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. 20 Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” 21 They answered, “The emperor’s.” Then he said to them, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” 22 When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.


Jesus touched a lot of nerves as he went about his ministry in Israel, and the tension was high when he arrived in Jerusalem for Passover. I’m probably the only one counting the number of encounters we’ve examined over the past few Sundays, and I’m very aware of the fact that this is the fourth week in which our Gospel lesson is set in the Temple during that huge annual festival. Once again, Jesus is addressing his Jewish adversaries, but today we aren’t dealing with a parable or an allegory as we have for the last 3 weeks. Today we’re looking at some straight dialogue, and this conversation has some interesting dynamics.


It was a remarkable thing for the Herodians and the Pharisees to collaborate on anything, but Jesus brought them together. Under normal circumstances the Pharisees and the Herodians couldn’t stand each other. The Herodians were the Jews who actually supported the Roman occupancy of Israel. They were rewarded by Romans with positions of authority within Israel, and the Romans used the Herodians to collect the taxes and to help maintain the kind of order within Jewish society that the Romans desired.


Under normal circumstances, the Herodians were considered to be horrible collaborators by the Pharisees along with other groups within Israel who longed for independence from Rome. The Herodians and the Pharisees were as far apart on the political spectrum as they could be, but both of these groups were challenged and threatened by Jesus, so they got together to ask Jesus about the thing that always gets people stirred up – taxes.


The Herodians were beneficiaries of Jewish taxes. You might say the Romans provided them with lucrative government contracts. They managed the tax collection program, and they were appointed to the highest offices. The High Priest was actually appointed by the governor as were all of the other priestly positions associated with Temple functions in Jerusalem, and these people were generally considered to be Herodians.


The Pharisees hated Roman taxes and the people who benefitted from those taxes. The Pharisees were out to create religious purity within Israel, and they were highly offended by the control that Rome had over their state. They considered Roman coins to be dirty money because the coins were inscribed in a way that portrayed Caesar as a god, so they considered Herodians to be dirty collaborators. For the Pharisees, paying taxes to Rome was like bowing down to a false god. And the Pharisees represented popular opinion within Israel. Not everyone who hated Roman taxes were associated with the Pharisees, but there were many different groups that felt the same way about those taxes.


So it was a rare day when the Herodians and the Pharisees got together on a plan, but neither of these groups had any affection for Jesus. The Herodians considered him to be an insurrectionist, and the Pharisees considered him to be an infidel. Both groups feared his popularity, so they shared this interest in getting him to say something unfortunate. This was an interesting political alliance that approached Jesus to ask him about taxes. They didn’t know what he was going to say, but they thought his answer would either result in his arrest or in the loss of his popular support. They thought they had him between that proverbial rock and a hard place.


I’m reminded of my friend who was once the pastor of a struggling congregation. It was a church that was largely financed by one couple, and that couple became unhappy with the nature of my friend’s preaching. My friend wasn’t hostile to the affluence of his primary contributor, but they didn’t see eye to eye on some things, and this couple got in touch with the District Superintendent about getting my friend moved to a different church. Unfortunately for the District Superintendent, when the word got out that my friend was going to be moved the bulk of the congregation let it be known that they would probably stop coming to that church if they moved the pastor. So the District Superintendent had to decide if he wanted to have a financially stable church with one family, or a poor church with a significant congregation.


I hate to own up to taking pleasure in the discomfort of others, but I was a little amused by the dilemma of that District Superintendent. The situation sort of resolved itself when the affluent couple moved to another UM church, where they were properly appreciated I’m sure, and they stuck the struggling congregation on with another church.


Religion, politics, and money – that’s a powerful brew. You mix those elements and you produce some interesting situations. It’s a combination that moves people to do unusual things, and it reveals raw agendas. When Jesus stepped in to the Temple people were compelled to decide what they valued the most, and much of what emerged wasn’t very pretty.


Newer versions of the Bible don’t use the word, render, to describe what Jesus said to his questioners. The New Revised Standard Version has Jesus saying that we should, give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s, but older English translations say we should, render under to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s. I think this speaks to the fact that most of us are pretty far removed from any kind of rendering process, but previous generations were more familiar with the term.


I’ve never done any rendering, nor have I ever toured a rendering plant, but I’ve driven by one, and I can testify that it’s an aromatic process. A rendering plant is a place where they basically cook animal carcasses down until they are reduced to their elemental materials. It’s not a pleasant process to ponder, but it’s very useful in a utilitarian sense. I’m not saying the way we treat animals is right, but it happens and most of us probably use some products that are somehow connected to that process.


And our Jewish ancestors were very familiar with that process. In some ways the ancient Temple had as much in common with a slaughterhouse as it does with a church sanctuary, and holy rituals were very much connected to what we might think of as butchering and rendering. So I think it’s helpful for us to think about the rendering process. It was the process they used to separate the most precious form of fat from the less valuable animal byproducts.


In some ways you can think of rendering as the process of reducing a creature down to it’s essential elements, and in a figurative sense, that’s a process that we sometimes find ourselves going through. Hard times put us in touch with what we are made of, and that’s not an entirely bad thing to experience. A life crisis isn’t anything any of us would choose for ourselves or for others that we know and love, but it’s not a bad thing to recognize what we value most and love the dearest.


You might say Jesus created a crisis for the Jewish community, and what emerged from that crisis wasn’t all good. It turns out that there were some people who valued and loved the wrong things. Jesus revealed the truth about God, and it turns out that there were some people who preferred their false illusions of God. In fact there were people of every different political and religious persuasion who loved their false understandings more than anything else, and Jesus functioned as a spiritual rendering plant. People who came in contact with Jesus were reduced to their essential elements and unfortunately many of them were shown to have more love for their own personal interests than for God.


We live in a far different, but an equally difficult world. In some ways it’s not as easy for us to identify the ways in which the demands of Caesar are placed upon us. There aren’t people in this world who blatantly establish themselves as gods and ask others to bow down to them. That just doesn’t work so well anymore, but there are ways in which institutions and individuals continue to lord themselves over other people. False understandings of God continue to exist, and many of us often give unwitting support to the false gods of our day.


It’s not easy to recognize the ways in which we give our best to Caesar and our leftovers to God, but I think this admonition from Jesus to, render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s and to God that which is God’s, is a powerfully pertinent thing for us to ponder.


If we were to be reduced to our most essential elements what would be revealed. To whom do we give our best, and who is it that we reluctantly give what we must.


I think Jesus was acknowledging that there are these Caesars in the world that must be fed. It’s all but impossible to not pay tribute to some ugly entities in this world, and I’m grateful that Jesus didn’t say to ignore Caesar. Jesus said to give Caesar what Caesar deserves. Caesar doesn’t deserve much, but you’ve got to give Caesar what Caesar is due.


And this sounds sort of easy, but it’s not. Caesar wants our complete allegiance and Caesar rewards that kind of attention. In many ways, if you want to do well in this world you’ve got to give your best to Caesar, but if you want to find true life you give your best to God. I’m speaking very metaphorically here. In fact I’m being intentionally vague about what it means to serve Caesar or to serve God because I don’t want Caesar to come after me.


But we all have critical decisions to make in regard to who it is that we love the most. It’s impossible for us not to engage with systems and institutions that have no regard for God, and because of this it’s critical for us to understand who it is we seek to serve. It would be nice if the only relationship we had to pay attention to is our relationship with God, but this isn’t possible, and Jesus seemed to be acknowledging this with his clever answer.


The one to whom we give our best is the one to whom we truly serve. And who it is we love the most determines whether or not we will be rendered to death or rendered to life when any form of heat gets turned our way. Jesus didn’t give us a magic formula for how we organize our lives, but he did provide a clear message about how we will find true life, and the message is that we need to be clear about who it is we live to serve. We live in a messy world and it’s not easy to find that narrow path that leads to true life, but Jesus spoke true words and the Holy Spirit is on hand to help us understand what he was talking about.


It’s tricky business to navigate through the godless traps that are easy for us to fall in to, and the enemies of God have many advocates who try to lure us in to giving to Caesar what belongs to God, but we aren’t on our own in this messy world. The Lord, our God is with us, and by the grace of God we will choose to live in a way that will keep us close to the source of true life and out of the grip of Caesar.


Thanks be to God – Amen.

Properly Responsive

Matthew 22:1-14


1 Once more Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying::2 “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son. 3 He sent his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding banquet, but they would not come. 4 Again he sent other slaves, saying, ‘Tell those who have been invited: Look, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet.’ 5 But they made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business, 6 while the rest seized his slaves, mistreated them, and killed them. 7 The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city. 8 Then he said to his slaves, ‘The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. 9 Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.’ 10 Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests. 11 “But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe, 12 and he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?’ And he was speechless. 13 Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ 14 For many are called, but few are chosen.”


Last week I talked a little bit about the difference between an allegory and a parable. I pointed out that an allegory is generally sort of a straight story who’s fictional characters represent identifiable people or entities, and that a parable is a story that goes off in a strange direction in order to make you question your view of reality. This week’s story reveals how fuzzy the line can be between those two types of stories. What we have this week is a story with some strong allegorical features that concludes with a twist that’s fitting of a parable. So when you start reading this parable you think you know what it’s all about. You think you know who represents who in this story and how it’s going to play out, but the story ends with a bizarre twist. If you don’t find yourself saying: What?!! – you aren’t paying attention.


I mean the situation is that Jesus is in the temple and he knows the chief priests and the Pharisees and all of the other people who didn’t like his message and leadership style were plotting against him. He knows that he’s dealing with some biblically literate people, so he knew it wouldn’t be hard for his detractors to understand what he was saying. They knew that he was connecting them with that long line of false prophets and leaders who lead the people of Israel astray. This story of the wedding feast is a pretty transparent tale that identifies the current leaders of Israel as being like those guests who were invited to the king’s wedding banquet and then refused to show up.


This story portrays the kingdom of God as being the kind of place where you aren’t likely to find the people who were originally invited to be a part of God’s holy community. This story reveals the ongoing tradition of abuse within the leadership of Israel and it identifies God’s rejection of those false leaders in a rather graphic way. You think you know how this story is going to end with the king inviting to the banquet those who were formerly uninvited. That is in fact what happens, and the king seems pleased that these new guests actually show up. It seems to be such a nice story for people like us who were never a part of the community that originally rejected Jesus, but out of no-where the king sees someone who isn’t dressed properly, and he has his guards grab that man, bind him, and throw him in to an entirely unpleasant place.


You probably came here this morning expecting to have a little relief from the variety of stressful stories that inundate our various news-feed-lines, and here we have a story that seems to portray God as being a little more erratic and inhospitable that we generally think of God as being. I’m a big fan of that promotional campaign that was introduced in the United Methodist Church a few years ago that described our denomination as being defined by Open Hearts, Open Doors and Open Minds. I like to think of our church as being the kind of place that welcomes everyone, but this passage of scripture makes me think the slogan needs a footnote directing prospects to the fine print that says: Enter at your own risk. Circumstances may call for you to be bound and cast in to the outer darkness where you will find weeping and gnashing of teeth.


There’s sort of a terrifying conclusion to this story, but I don’t think the news is as bad as it may seem on first glance. Once again, I think it’s important to recognize the context of this story. Jesus was talking to people who were very literally out to kill him, and he didn’t want them to continue going down that road without some clear warning of the danger involved in what they intended to do. And in fact, Jesus didn’t want any of us to be unaware of the costs of following him. I believe Jesus used some hyperbole to illustrate this point. I don’t believe this is a literal portrayal of how God treats houseguests, but the truth is that following Jesus is not a free ride down a lovely lane through a peaceful valley.


I liked that United Methodist promotional campaign, but it really isn’t an accurate portrayal of what the Christian faith is all about. If we are going to be true to the message Jesus presented our slogan should be something like this: United Methodism: It’s Not For Everyone.


Because the Christian faith is not designed to be an easy undertaking. Our denomination, like many other denominations and institutions, has experienced a lot of decline over the last few decades, and we continue to struggle to get our trend lines moving up instead of down. We want the church to be an attractive organization, but in all honesty Jesus isn’t the easiest messiah to follow. When he told his followers to pick up their cross and follow him he wasn’t talking about picking up a piece of jewelry that could be hung on a small gold chain. The church is an easy organization to join, but the honest truth is that following Jesus is hard.


And of course if you actually get involved in a church you know it’s hard. Unfortunately the hard things that we encounter in church are often organizational matters. I’m happy to say that we aren’t currently experiencing financial hardship within our church. This is not to say that you can rest easy. We have what you might call some fragile stability, but this is so much better than financial distress.


I know a man who was the Chairperson of the Finance Committee of a church that had become overextended in a number of ways and they had a perpetual shortage of money. He served in that role for a number of years, and he told me that he often remembers how relieved he was on the first day of January of the year he rotated out of that position. He said that was the first thing he thought about when he woke up on the first day of that new year and he could still remember how sweet that feeling was. He was clearly exercising some faithful discipleship in serving in that role, but I think it’s sort of sad that the people who engage in the most challenging church-work are often doing what they can to keep the doors open. I can tell you, I’m incredibly grateful to those of you who do the hard work of keeping the doors open, but I’m pretty sure the hard work Jesus was calling for us to do is beyond the doors of the church.


Jesus wants us to know that we are going to experience some uncomfortable demands if we are faithful to his call.


Of course following Christ isn’t just about costly effort. After all, Jesus compared the invitation to abide in the Kingdom of God to an invitation to a wedding banquet, and in Jesus’ day about the best thing that came along in a village was a wedding banquet. That’s when you got access to the best food and drink. A wedding banquet was a great break from what was generally a pretty tough and austere routine. So the invitation to follow him was an invitation to a grand opportunity, and the invitation comes to us as a great gift, but there’s an expectation of response.


This isn’t easy for us to hear, but I think we all know that it’s true. To be unresponsive to God’s expectation is to somehow miss the party. Actually, Jesus says this is a reason to be thrown out of the party. This isn’t an easy thing for us to hear Jesus saying, but it’s important to keep in mind that there aren’t any of us who are qualified to judge what’s expected of others. It’s the king who observed the guests and who didn’t like what that one person was wearing. It’s God alone who judges our fitness for the banquet. And it’s God who enables us understand what’s expected of us. It’s not unreasonable for us to encourage faithful living within our community, and I think we can help each other discern what that is, but it’s not up to us to decide who is properly or improperly suited up for God’s kingdom.


I don’t think the intent of this passage is to generate fear of God, but I do believe it is designed to illustrate the importance of connecting our lives with our professed desire to show up for God. If we accept the invitation to this divine banquet that we call the kingdom of heaven – we need to pay attention to what we have on – so to speak.


You may think that a person who owns a fluorescent green suit and puts a pumpkin on his head has little regard for the importance of appearance, but I’m actually pretty sensitive to being properly dressed. There’s an experience from a few years ago that’s seared in to my memory of when I realized that what I was wearing was totally inappropriate for where I was going. It happened when my daughter, Liza, was about 2 years old, and I had taken her to a Mother’s Day Out program at a YWCA in Durham, NC. Sharla was in class for the day, and I had taken Liza to Mothers Day Out so I could spend the morning painting our house. I had gotten to work and it was hot and I was young, so I had taken my shirt off. I suddenly realized I was about to be late picking Liza up, so I jumped in the car and started driving to get her. I was about half-way there when I realized I didn’t have a shirt on, and there wasn’t one in the car. It wasn’t a short drive, and I was already going to be a bit late – which was heavily frowned upon,  but I was mortified by the thought of walking in to that day-care situation without a shirt on.


I was near a restaurant where I knew the manager, and of course it isn’t proper to go in to a restaurant without a shirt on either, but that seemed like my best option. I ran in with $10 in my hand begging for a t-shirt and luckily my manager-friend was on duty and she sold me a shirt instead of throwing me out. I was so relieved to get a shirt on before I stepped in to the Mother’s Day Out community. I was late, but I avoided the humiliation of being so improperly covered.


It’s a terrible feeling to be inappropriately dressed. To feel some public scorn is to experience some inner wailing and gnashing of teeth. Jesus knows how much we hate to be singled out and to have our personal failure exhibited to the public, and I think he used that fear we have to raise our awareness of how important it is to respond appropriately to this invitation we’ve been given to live in relationship with God. It’s a gracious offer, and we don’t need to ignore it. Jesus told this allegorical parable so we will pay attention to our spiritual clothing.


Jesus wants us to feel some discomfort if we aren’t wearing our faith well. Jesus told this story to expose the impropriety of the religious offenders, pretenders, and neglecters of his day and of ours. The living Christ doesn’t want those of us who recently got invited to the party to think that we are fine just because we aren’t the former people.


I don’t know if you’ve ever experienced the humiliation of being improperly dressed, but I can testify that its not a good feeling, and I know I don’t want to repeat the experience. I hate to think how often I’ve failed to show up wearing the spiritually proper clothing, but it’s very clear to me that Jesus wants us to pay attention to such matters.


I don’t know if shirts and shoes are required at the banquet of the Lord, but I’m sure we need to be wearing some genuine love and forgiveness in our hearts if we want to enjoy the feast.


Thanks be to God.


God’s Employment Policy

Matthew 21:33-44


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. 34 When the harvest time had come, he sent his slaves to the tenants to collect his produce. 35 But the tenants seized his slaves and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. 36 Again he sent other slaves, more than the first; and they treated them in the same way. 37 Finally he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ 38 But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.’ 39 So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him. 40 Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” 41 They said to him, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time.” 42 Jesus 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’? 43 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. 44 The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.” 45 When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them. 46 They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, because they regarded him as a prophet.


Matthew labels this story Jesus tells as a parable, but it seems to function more like an allegory. Unlike a parable, which usually involves a familiar circumstance that goes off in a strange direction, an allegory is a story where the characters represent identifiable people. A parable is designed to disrupt your usual way of seeing and interpreting the world, while an allegory unmasks a truth in a manner that isn’t very hard to follow. A parable causes you to think while an allegory reminds you of something you probably already know.


The Gospel of Matthew seems to have been directed toward people who were familiar with the faith and history of Israel. The community that Matthew was addressing was wrestling with the issue of how Jesus fit in with the Jewish faith tradition, and this story serves as both an endorsement of what God had done through the people of Israel, and an indictment of the way in which Israel had been managed.


It’s not very hard to identify who the various characters in this story represent. The landowner is God, and the vineyard that the landowner established is Israel. The tenants of the vineyard are the various leaders of Israel who had put their own interests above God’s intentions, and those who came throughout time to collect the rent were the various prophets that were persecuted for their efforts to speak the truth. Of course the landowner’s son that was killed by the tenants represents Jesus, the killers were the various scribes, chief priests, and Pharisees who rejected Jesus, and the new tenants of the vineyard would be us, the church.


It wouldn’t have been hard for the religious executives of the day to see who was who in this story, and I’m sure they didn’t like it, but they didn’t choose to change their role in the story. Upon hearing this story they became even more determined to have Jesus arrested and killed. The story ends with the old tenants being put out and put to death in a miserable manner, which is suitable for the story, but not something for us to use maliciously. Jesus didn’t tell this story in order for us to become overly self-assured of our own Christian righteousness. In fact it’s important for us to take note of the detail about us being the new tenants – not the owners of the vineyard. We don’t have a deed to the property – we have been granted a lease, and God is no doubt paying attention to the way in which we manage the farm.


I like this story. I’m not saying I like all the details of this story. It’s a tough story to hear, and it’s actually sort of gruesome, but I don’t mind a gruesome tale when it makes a good point. I don’t like to watch gratuitous violence on television or in movies, but you can’t really watch television without seeing somebody getting killed, and I don’t mind watching a malicious character getting killed in a fitting manner.


Of course we’ve seen and heard too many stories of real-life death on television this week. I can’t help but wonder if we haven’t become desensitized to actual death by our over-exposure to dramatized death. It’s enough to make you want to turn it all off, but it’s also been gratifying to hear the stories of heroism that were exhibited by so many people in response to the terror that erupted in Las Vegas last Sunday night.


And on a side note, I’m the owner of guns and I have appreciation for guns, but I’ve come to feel that access to military-style assault weapons needs to be more controlled. I’m sorry to distract from what Jesus was talking about, but I can’t help but share my feelings about this. I totally understand the need for self-defense, and I support the right to have self-defensive weapons. I even understand the attraction to shooting powerful weapons, and I’m ok with providing access to those weapons in controlled settings, but nobody aught to be able to build up the kind of death-dealing arsenal that the shooter in Las Vegas had legally acquired. There may be something about this that I don’t understand, and I’m open to a debate about it, but I feel like we’ve got a gun problem that needs to be addressed in a significant way.


I don’t mean to distract you from what Jesus was wanting us to think about, but I think this is on all of our minds, and I just can’t keep from saying something about it.


Of course it’s a life and death issue that Jesus wants us to think about. Jesus told this story to illustrate what it looks like to live in a manner that embraces death and not life, and he doesn’t want us to make that mistake. He, more than anyone else, recognized that it’s possible for people who profess to love God to live in ways that offend God, and he doesn’t want us to do that. God has had some bad tenants of his vineyard, and we need to not do as they have done. If we want to remain as tenants of God’s good vineyard we need to know what God expects and to do the work that gives God pleasure.


This is a story that taps in to that vein of outrage that we probably all can find within ourselves when we hear of excessively bad behavior or perhaps even experience it. I know it’s easy for me to get infuriated by people who take advantage of situations to serve themselves.


When I was the associate pastor at Lakewood UMC we had the misfortune of hiring a new secretary who turned out to be a thief. She wasn’t there long enough to figure out how to steal large amounts of money, but she started taking money from a petty cash fund that I kept in my desk drawer. We had started a recycling program at the church, and every once in while this retired man and I would load up a trailer full of newspaper and take it to a local recycling plant. We’d get $15 or $20 dollars/trip and I would just put it and the receipts in a cash box in my drawer until I had a good collection and then I would add up the receipts and the cash and give it to the financial secretary. We had been doing that for a year or so and the money and the receipts always added up, until we hired a new secretary, and on more than one occasion the money didn’t match the receipts. The money wasn’t all gone, but a significant portion would be missing.


I became very suspicious of her. And then I became outraged. We had a fish fry for the youth program one weekend and I worked really hard on that event. I counted the money on that Monday morning and I guess I was tired and not sufficiently vigilant and I left the cash in my drawer when I went to lunch. When I came back there was $100 less than what I had counted that morning.


At that point I went on a mission to catch her in the act. I actually hid in my closet one day during lunch in hope of catching her looking through my drawer, but that didn’t work out – people kept coming in the office all morning. I didn’t want to spend every lunch in my closet so I bought a light activated alarm from Radio Shack. I put it in my cash box, and I left it on my desk one day during lunch. I had shared my suspicion with Doris the Financial Secretary, and her office was near mine, and I told her if she heard an alarm going off in my office she should take note of who was in there.


When I came in from lunch that afternoon Doris came in my office and she was sort of hyper-ventilating. She told me she had heard that alarm and then she had seen the secretary leaving my office. I thanked her for letting me know, and I proceeded to tell the senior minister that our secretary was a thief. He was newly appointed to the church, and we had only been working together for about a month. And after telling him what I had done he wasn’t sure if I was a nut or she was a thief.


He chose to trust me and he confronted her with the information I had given him. She acted offended by his accusation, but she called him at midnight that night and said she couldn’t work with people who didn’t trust her. By the next morning she had removed all of her stuff from her desk and we never saw her again.


I’ve got a short fuse when it comes to people stealing from the church. I think most decent people can get pretty activated by people who take advantage of godly institutions, and rightly so. Stealing money from a church is clearly a bad thing to do, but what isn’t so clear are the ways in which we aren’t so vigilant about the subtle ways we take advantage of God.


And when I say this I’m thinking more of what the Catholic church would label as sins of omission as opposed to sins of commission. As the Apostle Paul says in Romans: For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. There may be some obvious things that we do that are clearly offensive to God and hurtful to our neighbors, but I think it’s more likely that we harbor attitudes and habits that we don’t even know are ungodly and insensitive. There are ways in which we fail to do something good because we simply aren’t paying attention.


It’s too bad that you can’t buy a little alarm like the one I got from Radio Shack, but instead of going off whenever it’s exposed to light it would go off when we hide from the light.


Jesus didn’t just tell this story in order to reveal the excessive pride of the Jewish authorities. Jesus wanted to drill through the layers denial that we are capable of building up between us and the truth. He doesn’t want us to focus on the misguided tendencies of those who have come before us or even of the evil scoundrels of our day. Jesus wants us to live with keen awareness of ourselves. Jesus told this story in order for us to maintain a high level of alertness for how we might be less self-serving and more God-fearing.


This story portrays God as being capable of dealing with us in a harsh manner, but that isn’t the focus of this story. The intent of this story is to highlight the choices we make in how we live our lives, and there are clear consequences of the choices we make. There are ways of living that put us in touch with the very present kingdom of God, and there are ways of living that put us in touch with death. It’s not always so easy to see the ways in which we are choosing death over life, and that’s why Jesus told this story. He wants us to be alert, and to be good stewards of God’s beautiful vineyard.


We’ve been given a good deal, and by the grace of God we’ll maintain our end of the bargain.


Thanks be to God. Amen.



Powerful Questions

Matthew 21:23-32


23 When he entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching, and said, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” 24 Jesus said to them, “I will also ask you one question; if you tell me the answer, then I will also tell you by what authority I do these things. 25 Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” And they argued with one another, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say to us, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ 26 But if we say, ‘Of human origin,’ we are afraid of the crowd; for all regard John as a prophet.” 27 So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” And he said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things. 28 “What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ 29 He answered, ‘I will not’; but later he changed his mind and went. 30 The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘I go, sir’; but he did not go. 31 Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. 32 For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.


Dr. Charles Campbell is a professor of homiletics at Duke Divinity School – which means he tries to teach people how to preach. And that’s got to be one of the hardest jobs there is. I don’t know how you train a person to speak for 12 to 20 minutes in a way that’s creative, inspirational, relevant, insightful, wise, witty, and true to the Biblical text. I wish someone could have trained me to be all of those things. Actually I wish I had given them the chance to train me to be those things. I hardly took any classes in preaching when I was in seminary. I’m not sure what I thought I would be doing when I became a preacher, but it turns out that preachers do a lot of preaching.


But I came across something Charles Campbell wrote as I was working on my sermon earlier this week, and it made me think he’s the kind of professor I would have enjoyed having. He mentioned that while he was channel-surfing one day – I don’t know if that’s something he recommends to his students to do in order to get sermon ideas or not, but while he was channel-surfing he came across someone who was interviewing the celebrity psychologist, Dr. Phil. And he heard Dr. Phil say something that got his attention.


Dr. Phil usually does the interviewing, but as I say, on this occasion Dr. Phil was being interviewed, and when Dr. Phil was asked who he would like to interview if he could interview anyone from any period of time he immediately responded by saying he would like to interview Jesus Christ. He said he would like to have a conversation with Jesus about the meaning of life.


Charles Campbell said that when he heard Dr. Phil’s answer he immediately thought to himself how badly it would go if Dr. Phil tried to interview Jesus. It’s not that Dr. Phil isn’t a skilled interviewer, he would probably do as well as anyone, but it just never went well for people who tried to extract information from Jesus. Jesus would probably not have given Dr. Phil the interview of his dreams. It’s far more likely that such a conversation would turn in to a nightmare.


Children could probably have asked Jesus questions without being frightened by his response, but the adults who questioned him usually found themselves in some kind of a bind. Of course, the people who shot questions at him were usually out to do him in. They were often trying to get him to say something that would either get him stoned to death by a crowd or arrested by the police, but that’s not what generally happened. Such interrogators usually found themselves running for theological cover.


But even those who weren’t out to get him were often troubled by his response to their inquiries. I’m thinking of the well-meaning and affluent young man who asked Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus told him he should go sell everything and follow him – which is not what he was hoping to hear. Maybe Dr. Phil could do what no-one else ever did, which was to leave a conversation with Jesus without having their world turned upside down, but I’m with Dr. Campbell on this – I don’t think that would be a real career-boosting move for Dr. Phil to interview Jesus.


Of course it’s not always a bad thing to have a painful experience that provides you with greater understanding. I remember the day I learned about the power of fire. I think I was probably 5 or 6 years old when I climbed up on the kitchen counter to get the box of matches that I had seen my parents use every now and then. Those matches were so interesting to me. I struck one of them and held it to the curtains on the kitchen door. I didn’t think anything had happened until after I had put the box back up and turned around to see a large flame growing. Luckily my keeper was in the house and came quickly when I screamed. She got the flame put out, but not without some tragedy. We had a parakeet in a cage nearby, and apparently the bird was going nuts. She opened the cage and the bird flew in to the wall and died.


It was a terrible and memorable event for me. That may be my earliest memory. That was a very educational experience for me. An educational experience – that’s what you call an idiotic act a couple of years later when it’s safe to bring it up.


I don’t know if the chief priests and elders were ever able to recognize this encounter with Jesus as being an educational experience, but they certainly underestimated their adversary, and what they exposed was not what they wanted people to see.


I’m guessing these chief priests and elders were accustomed to being in the role of Dr. Phil – they were the ones who liked to put people on the spot and make them answer uncomfortable questions. They were hoping to expose Jesus as being someone who was totally out of bounds, and I can understand where they were coming from. This conversation happened the day after Jesus had gone in to the temple and totally disrupted the religious marketplace. When they asked Jesus who gave him the authority to do those things, the things they were talking about included turning over the tables of the money changers, freeing the unblemished animals that were for sale, and driving the sales staff out with a whip. Those things Jesus did had not gone over well with the temple authorities, and they wanted to know who gave him the authority to do such things.


They thought their question would get him to say something blasphemous or incriminating, but it blew up on them. His question to them about the authority of John the Baptist put them in an exceedingly awkward position, and their hesitation to answer him revealed them to be the ones who were operating with false authority. He exposed them to be like the son who said he would go in to the field but didn’t. He declared them to be less righteous than those who were generally considered to be the least righteous people in the community, and it was believable.


You’re probably familiar with that wise old saying: It’s better to keep your mouth shut and be thought a fool than to open your mouth and remove all doubt. I don’t always let this wisdom guide my mouth, but I know there’s some truth to it, and it’s not that hard for me to keep my ignorance to myself. I have learned to be careful. I think I would have known not to challenge Jesus. I’m not like Dr. Phil – I’m careful about who I choose to challenge.


I’ve got a friend who finds it really hard not share his opinion about whatever is going on in the world or at work. He used to be real clear about what he thought about everything on Facebook, but the reactions he got sort of soured him on the practice. I sort of admired him for his honesty and openness, but it got to him. He and I were talking about this not long ago, and I told him how inclined I am to keep a low Facebook profile. It’s easy for me to be careful in that way.


Being careful has it’s benefits, but it’s got it’s downside. Careful people don’t generally provoke powerful adversaries, but it’s the people who aren’t so careful that make things happen. We don’t have any stories in the gospels about the careful people who kept their distance from Jesus. Careful people didn’t get close enough to him to be questioned or challenged, and in so doing they avoided having the most profound educational experience you could possibly have. It might have been painful life lessons, but Jesus needed misguided people to engage with him in order for us to see some truth exposed.


When I read this morning’s passage I find myself being grateful that there were these people who were so blinded by their self-serving allegiance to their religious institution that they thought they could expose the spiritual weakness of Jesus. I’m so happy that they did this for us. What I see in this passage is the value of any kind of encounter with Jesus, and how important it is to become engaged with who he was and to hear what he had to say.


It’s not good to avoid those educational experiences that happen when you engage with the unknown. It’s important to step in to situations that are out of our control and disruptive to our comfortable patterns of behavior. It’s in those situation that we can learn the most about ourselves and become more fully alive. Jesus didn’t challenge people because he enjoyed giving people a hard time (he may have, but that’s not why he did it). Jesus challenged people because he wanted them to discover true life. Jesus didn’t call for repentance because he was a religious brute who wanted to exercise his godly authority. Jesus wanted people to leave their old lives behind in order to live better lives.


The religious executives could understand why the tax collectors and prostitutes needed to let go of their old lives, but they couldn’t see their own form of unrighteousness. The only thing they could see was the need to get rid of the man who didn’t respect their authority. I don’t know if any of them were able to see what Jesus actually revealed. We don’t know if any of them learned the right thing from this educational experience, but I think I know what Jesus always wants us to see.


Jesus wants us to see the truth about God and about ourselves. He wants us to know how well we are loved by God and how we can be the bearers of that love. But he also wants us to know of the ways in which we fail to connect our professed love for God with love for our neighbors. He wants us to see who it is we are serving, and who we may be hurting. What illusions are we promoting and what truths are we denying?


Honestly, I think Dr. Phil had a good answer when he was asked who he would like to interview. I’m guessing that’s not an interview he would be able to control, but that’s an interview we all need to have. We need to be in touch with the one who sees us for who we are and who loves us enough to ask us those perfectly unsettling questions.


We aren’t just called to live careful lives – we are called to be faithful. We’re going to make mistakes, but I think we all know that we learn the most from the things we do wrong. We aren’t to be reckless, but the most spiritually deadening thing may be to remain in our most comfortable places.


It’s not an easy thing to be a faithful follower of Jesus Christ, but the life lessons that he offers will last a lifetime and beyond.


Thanks be to God! Amen.