Sunday, September 28, 2014

The Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 21A] - September 28, 2014 (Matthew 21:23-32 and Philippians 2:1-13)

It was bound to happen at some point. Like a video game character who slowly and methodically encounters and then bests the competition in each level of a video game, Jesus has slowly worked his way through the opposition in the small synagogues and communities through Galilee and has finally arrived at the final stage. He is in Jerusalem now—the crowded, cosmopolitan, capital city, with its colossal Temple and hornet’s nest of religious activity. The challenges to his ministry that were thrown out by the priests, Pharisees, and scribes in all those small towns outside of Jerusalem had been, for the most part, easy for Jesus to handle. But the ones who congregated in and around the “big league” Temple up in Jerusalem were the best and the brightest. They were the chief priests. And if those guys weren’t exactly the best and the brightest, they were certainly the most influential religious leaders and the ones most concerned with maintaining the status quo. They helped control the levers of power that kept the Roman occupying government pacified and the local Jewish population calm and obedient.

Jesus cleanses the temple
Therefore, when Jesus enters Jerusalem and the local population waves palm branches before him and acclaims him as Son of David, King of Israel, the chief priests and scribes get more than a little irritated. And when Jesus makes a bee-line for the Temple and drives out all their money-changers’ tables and upsets the system of keeping religious order in place, they zero in on him immediately. There in the Temple they confront him like the big, fierce opponents that they are. It was bound to happen at some point: Jesus would get in trouble with the final authorities.

That is the scene we witness today, just so you have an idea of what the stakes are. I was never very good at video games, but I was always in awe of my cousins who could reach the final level on Super Mario Brothers and Mike Tyson’s Punch Out. It involved knowing how to press the buttons on the game controller at just the right time and in just the right order. We can similarly be in awe of Jesus’ ability to silence them. He knows how to respond to their traps with just the right counter-questions so they don’t know how to respond.

Their main concern is over Jesus’ authority, itself. Where is he getting the authority to do the things that he’s doing? No one just walks into the Temple and starts teaching, much less flipping over tables, unless he can claim someone gave him the authority to do so. His response to them about where they stand on John the Baptist’s authority is not really straightforward. Jesus doesn’t come out and say, “God the Father gave me this authority,” but what he does say is very clever and manages to silence them.

He knows that, for one, the religious authorities are not genuinely curious about him. They are only confronting him in this manner because they are trying to trap him. If they catch him in a trap, if they catch him saying something that is outright blasphemous, they can do him in.

the chief priests question Jesus, still from Jesus of Nazareth
Secondly, Jesus answers in a less than straightforward manner because he is a little hesitant to put right out there all of the details about his identity as Son of God and where his authority comes from. To us, this may seem strange and a little shady. It may seem like he’s ducking and weaving, but, in fact, Jesus is always a little reluctant to declare too much about what and who he is. The reason is because if people reach any premature conclusions about his identity and the nature of his power before the final event of his crucifixion, their understanding will be entirely incomplete. Jesus is the Messiah, but he is the suffering Messiah. Jesus is powerful Lord of all, but he is chiefly going to display that power on the cross. In short, Jesus holds all of God’s authority, but he exercises that authority by laying it aside completely. No one will really understand that kind of authority—or know how to respond to it—until after he is hung on the cross in shame. That is, it’s bound to happen at some point: the people will eventually comprehend just what kind of Savior Jesus is, but it won’t be here in the Temple, and it won’t be this day.

Before the religious leaders slink off to conspire again,  Jesus follows up with this this short parable about the two sons who are asked by their father to go work in the vineyard. In Jesus’ day, rejecting a father’s authority in public by declining to do what he asked was a big no-no. It was seen as a direct challenge to the father’s status and power. The first son would have raised serious eyebrows. Even a polite “No, thank you, dad” would have been viewed like a temper tantrum. This son would have been shunned and ridiculed and treated in his society similar to the way that folks like the tax collectors and prostitutes were treated by the religious leaders.

The second son, by contrast, says, “Sure, I’ll go work,” thereby maintaining that level of public respect, but then never follows through on that promise. This second son certainly would have looked good, as someone who agrees to the right authority, but he never enjoys the full relationship of that authority. He certainly would have fit right in to the surrounding cultural mores, appearing dutiful and respectable, but never really joining his will to that of his father.

Meanwhile, it dawns on the first son that living under of the authority of his father is something good for him, and that the invitation to go work is still open. He changes his mind, even though he would have been written off by so many for publicly rejecting at first, and is welcomed under his father’s authority.

It is easy when hearing this parable to get stuck on the comparison between these two sons, trying to figure out which one we are more like…or, as is more often the case, trying to label other people in terms of the two sons. That was certainly one of Jesus’ points in telling it; that is, to cause reflection upon the ways in which the hearer does or doesn’t respond.

Jesus condemned (artist unknown)
However, what would have been most peculiar to the listeners in Jesus age, would have not have been the reactions of the two sons, but the reaction of the father. This father does nothing to scold or punish or reject the first son, the one who initially rejects him. This strange father does nothing to write him out of the will or shower praise on the second, publicly-obedient son. This father shows compassion and patience. He displays longsuffering and openness. His invitation to work in the vineyard doesn’t not immediately expire…as if it’s just one offer and then done. Rather, it seems to be open, waiting for as many of his sons and workers as possible to join in on the fun.

That father, you see, realizes what’s bound to happen at some point: the first son will realize it’s better to work in the vineyard, even if he insulted and defied that father in the first place. That father understands that eventually his children will realize that although his authority is firm and clear, it is exercised graciously and in a loving manner. That father understands that it will dawn on his children at some point that his power is made known in his compassion, that, to quote Jesus in an earlier scene, he desires mercy, not sacrifice.

As for the tax collectors and prostitutes, Jesus tells the dutiful religious authorities (who have said “Yes,” to God’s authority so many times but then never follow through), they and the other sinners may have publicly chosen a life that rejects God’s desires, but they are changing their minds and responding to their Father’s invitation and guess what: they’re probably loving the chance to go back and work in the vineyard.

This peculiar father and the way he allows admittance to his vineyard is the very father Jesus has come to represent. This peculiar way of showing authority—by suffering with patience and dying to show compassion—is the very way our God demonstrates his love for us on the cross. Eventually we will understand, through faith, that his kingdom is open to us, and it’s not so much the issue that any of us has to live under his authority, but that we get to. We get to say, “That kingdom is really where I want to be—and because of Jesus, I may be there.”

For Scripture assures us, that’s bound to happen at some point too. One day every knee—in heaven and on earth and under the earth—shall bow and every tongue will confess his authority. We’ll reach that final level, so to speak, to find him there before us: he who submitted to the worst of our earthly authorities—our torture, our coercive ways, our despicable violence, the dubious nature of all our tendencies of human power—he will be the final authority. All of creation will answer to him and wrestle with his justice…and there will be no tricky responses that will enable us to wiggle our way out of it. At some point, it’s bound to happen. He will be ours to confess, no matter how many times we’ve denied it beforehand.

So, in the meantime, let’s give some thought to that vineyard. It’s better to be in there right now anyway, under the authority of a father who, for the time-being, is leaving the gate open for one and all.



The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

St. Matthew, Apostle and Evangelist - September 21, 2014 (Matthew 9:9-13)

Heard any good news lately? I mean, really. It seems that all we get anymore is bad news. At a local level, if we’re not trying to stomach the sordid details in the trial of our former governor and his wife, we’re bracing ourselves for more terrible and ominous news from Charlottesville and the disappearance of UVA student Hannah Graham. At a national or global level, things aren’t any better. Take your pick—the cost of health care, the spread of Ebola, the bloody wars and hostage-crises in the Middle East—no matter where you look it’s just more bad news. And that’s not even including some of the football scores from yesterday!

In all seriousness, the steady diet of bad news we receive from our papers and podcasts and TV programs is probably due to the fact that reports of horrific crimes and salacious scandals sell the best advertising. Nevertheless, with all the turmoil and tragedy around us, you think we’d know a piece of good news if we came across it. You’d think we’d be able to seize upon one of those instances of the noble and decent and be able to share it with others just as instantaneously.

"The Calling of Matthew" Reymerswaile (1536)
In the New Testament, the law-loving Pharisees come across good news several times and they don’t…or they can’t. It happens right under their nose, and they don’t see it. Instead, they question it and criticize it. Like a Palestinian TMZ, they seize upon it as another scandal, another sensational affair that needs to be lampooned: Jesus, the upstart rabbi from Nazareth, the one who announces the kingdom of heaven is at hand, is—get this!—reclining at table with people who are anything but acceptable! That’s actually good news in action, right there. Fresh-off-the-presses, ink-still-wet good news. In fact, Jesus’ strange table fellowship that morning in Capernaum after he calls Matthew from the tax booth is the beginning of the most amazing kind of news possible, but the Pharisees are too caught up in their conventions of religion and piety to see it and understand what’s happening. They’re too stuck on the letter of the law to see that God’s kingdom is breaking in right in front of them.

You see, tax collectors were about the last possible people one could imagine being called into God’s service. First of all, they handled money—the emperor’s money. Not only did that technically make Matthew an agent of the occupying power, but the handling of money was also unclean. Second of all, tax collectors were seen as making a living off of other people’s hard work. Some scholars think that Matthew was actually a toll collector, which is more like a deputy tax collector, or a franchisee. He was employed by someone who had purchased from Caesar the rights to exact commerce fees from tradesmen in a certain geographical district. Anytime someone came into his little zone to peddle something, they would have had to report to Matthew’s booth to pay some tribute. Like a TSA or customs agent today, he’d rifle through their wares to assess the value and bully people into paying up. It was really rough work, hassling these merchants for Caesar’s cut, and it was widely thought that riff-raff like Matthew were toll collectors because they couldn’t really get another job.

"The Calling of St. Matthew" Terbrugghen (1616)
That Jesus would call someone like a tax collector to come and follow was ludicrous—like the kingdom of heaven was scraping the bottom of the barrel. And then for Jesus to go and eat around a table with Matthew and a whole assortment of riff-raff was downright detestable. Bad news. What a scoop of dirt on Jesus.

On the other hand, one can see how Matthew would jump at the opportunity to follow Jesus and listen to what he is talking about. In other words, Matthew knows good news when it hits him, and Jesus’ call to leave that infernal tax booth was the best news he’d ever received. Up until now, the riches of God’s mercy were off-limits to people like him because he just didn’t make the cut. Up until now, the joy of living in God’s kingdom was something he’d never get to experience because he was an outcast. But Jesus had changed all that. He came to call not the righteous—not the people who thought they had it all figured out, but those who were ever aware of their detestable-ness.

This is good news. It is good news that God wants to scrape the bottom of the barrel. It means that in Jesus God is opening up a new future for those whom the religious elites have written off long ago. It means God’s kingdom is now bringing in all types people who have had to resort to living up to whatever awful label the world has given them, or they’ve given themselves. It means that God’s kingdom is open to sinners and that furthermore that sinners can be changed, not through the applied force of God’s law and following rules, but through Jesus’ granting of unbounded mercy.

Naumberg Cathedral (c. 1250)
Matthew would want us to take note of an important distinction here: the good news of Jesus Christ is not that God has declared that being a ruthless tax collector is now acceptable, as if in God’s kingdom people get to go on being tax collectors and prostitutes or other things that degrade and diminish humanity. Could you imagine that? That wouldn’t be good news to a tax collector like Matthew at all, or to any sinner, for that matter. The tax collector wants out of his social quagmire, out from behind his booth.

Rather, the good news that Jesus brings is that the kingdom of heaven is now open to all people, because mercy is available to all people, especially those who know they don’t deserve it. Because of Christ, sinners like Matthew—and like you and me!—may envision and grasp a future where our sin does not always define us, even though it still may cling to us so tightly. Because of the life and death of Jesus, we now have hope that the demoralizing power of sin will not always have its way. It will be nailed to the cross and left to die. God’s mercy shown in Jesus wipes sin away and any time Jesus strolls into our midst—whether in his Word or around his very presence in this table for sinners here—the news is good because he has the power to turn us to life in him.

It’s almost never a quick turning, and Martin Luther understood it was something that happened daily, over and over again, not once in life time, not once you say a special prayer. With that in mind, any congregation of Christians must learn to see itself as a place where space can be made for the new people who are being called by that mercy, the new Matthews (and the old ones!) who are hearing and wanting to engage the person who has opened up a new future for them. One key to doing that is for those who are already at the table to remember that they’re all sinners, too. It is to remember that the very presence of this community is always good news, something to seize upon, for here the kingdom of heaven is breaking in.

The congregation I served in Pittsburgh held a brief Holy Communion liturgy every Wednesday evening. It was attended by the same five to ten diehards every week, and in the summer months, we’d bring our folding chairs and small altar table outside on the lawn with the hopes that people would see us and join our ranks, but to my knowledge few ever did. One early fall evening—in fact, I remember it was September 21, the festival of St. Matthew—we decided it was a little too cool and dark to be outside, so we just stayed in the sanctuary. We left the big red front doors to the church open, however, thinking that even if the sound of our piano didn’t echo out onto the busy street, at least we had made ourselves look welcoming.

We had just heard this same gospel lesson about Matthew and Jesus table for all sinners. I had offered a brief meditation, and that simple little wooden table we used as an altar was ready to go for Holy Communion. When the proper time came, the worshippers got up from their pews and, being so small in number, stood shoulder to shoulder to form one tight semicircle around the altar at the head of the main aisle, their backs to the front door far behind them.

Right as I was breaking the bread, something caught my eye in the evening sunlight. Lo and behold, walking down the aisle straight toward our communion table was a woman from off the street. She was shuffling along unevenly, laden with several bags from the Dollar Store, but clearly making a bee-line for communion. Although I didn’t know her name, I recognized her. She was one of the residents of our eclectic little borough who might not have been technically homeless, but seemed to spend her days wandering around almost shadowlike along the sidewalks, not really talking to anyone or doing anything. Something had summoned her off the street and to our table at that very moment, as if she were one of St. Matthew’s old friends, testing us, testing to see if we thought this was still good news. I was in the middle of a prayer, my hands occupied with the chalice and loaf, so I couldn’t really respond, but the worshippers caught sight this strange newcomer, heard the plastic bags brushing her body down the aisle, and instinctively opened up a break in the semicircle and let her stand right there among them, no longer in the shadows. She took the bread and the wine, and we spoke briefly with her after worship. We only saw her a few other times, but she brought friends with her, a few fellow sidewalk pacers who saw the open door.

In that strange, microcosmic moment I believe we were all reminded again that this is good news. We were shown again that this is how this particular gospel works, and how a congregation that is properly gathered around it is transformed to share it, to open up the semicircle just a little bit more for everyone. The kingdom came crashing in, once more. That any of us were there at all is due to the fact that God scrapes the bottom of the barrel.

Oh, that we would be so moved to announce the grace and make room so instinctively in every instance! Oh, that we not be Pharisees that overlook it. Mercy is the name of this God’s game, not sacrifice.  Tax collectors, sinners…all kinds of outsiders can now be in. Come to think of it, there really is no outside or “inside” anymore. The cross has opened the door to the street.

Come, now: in a steady stream of so much bad—I mean, really!—is this not the greatest news you’ve ever heard?

Matthew is often depicted with the gospel that bears his name.

Thanks be to God!



The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

The Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 18A] - September 7, 2014 (Matthew 18:15-20)

Every once in a while I hear the claim that the Bible isn’t practical for today’s living. People say it’s out of touch, too difficult to understand, or it talks about an ancient world that doesn’t bear any clear resemblance to modern life. I’m not saying I hear those kinds of things here, but I do believe it’s an attitude that people contemplate in wider culture. Although I ultimately disagree with it, it’s an understandable view. There’s still a lot that initially leaves me scratching my head.

But there’s not much to scratch our heads about in this morning’s gospel lesson in Matthew. Talk about practical! Talk about real-life applicability! Here is Jesus giving step-by-step instructions to his disciples about what to do if someone in the church sins against them. In other words, Jesus prepares his followers for the off-chance that there might be some conflict in the church at some point. It is an off-chance, however—a contingency plan for that rare scenario when someone in the church actually does something to hurt another. I know, I know: things like this only happen in congregations south of the river. Nevertheless, Jesus feels it might be helpful to be a little explicit with everyone about how to handle it.

Some could say that if Jesus were ever going to get practical about life in the church, he should save it for something we could really need, like how to run a Rally Day that doesn’t wear everybody out, or how to choose hymns that make everybody happy, or how to call an associate pastor in six weeks or less. But no, none of that. Jesus is all but silent on those areas of church life. When choosing to get his disciples ready for the life of Christian witness, he spends his time focusing on how to repair relationships when they become broken. That is sin’s nature, after all: brokenness.
The King James Version of the Bible once translated this as “trespass,” a word which has taken on a very narrow definition in our time, meaning to cross unlawfully into someone else’s property. This where we get the traditional version of the Lord’s Prayer, the one that says, “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Speaking of that, that would be another practical thing Jesus could include: how to get folks to agree to one version of the Lord’s Prayer!

My uncle, who is a Lutheran pastor, once interviewed at a small rural church situated on a large tract of land in another state. As he drove up to the church, he noticed a sign on the far edge of the property that said, “No Trespassing.” To be fair, the sign had probably been put up when the property was privately-owned and the members had forgotten to take it down when the church acquired it, but it made an impression on my uncle. “Here,” he said to himself, “I’ve hit the jackpot! A congregation where no one trespasses!”
It’s easy to laugh at one congregation’s folly, but the fact of the matter is that many congregations don’t need to post a “No Trespassing” sign to convey that message. I think we’re all aware of the perception out there that people who go to church think they’re perfect, that congregations project the attitude that they’ve got it all figured out, that they can do no wrong. The reality is, brokenness doesn’t just affect those congregation’s “south of the river.” It affects any group of disciples, because the brokenness of sin affects every human relationship. It would do every congregation well to remember the adage of one of my theology professors: the church is a hospital for sinners where even the doctors are sick. Considering that, congregations might want to post a sign that says, “Trespassers WELCOME.”

Looking more closely at these practical instructions, we see Jesus does not spare us the nitty-gritty. First, go to the offender alone and point out the offense. Let’s be real: at that stage, 99% of interpersonal conflict would probably be solved. The person who has done the trespassing, for example, may not even know that his actions hurt the victim. In confirmation class, we talk about how this important first step is actually just honoring the 8th commandment: you shall not commit false witness against your neighbor. False witness does not have to occur in a courtroom. In reality, it involves honoring your neighbor’s word and character and keeping a matter of reconciliation between the people who are affected rather than involving others unnecessarily. All too often when we’ve been hurt by someone, who’s the first person we go talk to: someone else! Or we just never bring it up and passive-aggressively move on somewhere else.

Jesus continues: if the person still does not repent of the sin and wishes to continue in the wrongdoing or not ask for forgiveness, then the matter may begin to involve the support—not the gossip—of others. If, at that point, there is still no reconciliation, the matter should be brought before the whole assembly in some fashion. If even that does not help bring about forgiveness and reconciliation—and here’s the real surprise—that person, Jesus says, is to become to you like a tax collector or Gentile.

At first, that sounds like the person is to be banished, rejected, and forgotten about, until you remember how Jesus himself treats tax-collectors and Gentiles. He reaches out in mercy to them. He shares meals with them. In spite of their sin, he announces that God’s kingdom is open to them. Repentance will come at some point.

If we’re honest with ourselves, most of us find following such a detailed set of instructions just too painstaking. The truth of the matter is, when it comes to sin and reconciling, many of us would rather just not bother with it. Faith in God is reduced to a private, personal issue, so that the only real reason why “I” come to church or participate in its activities is to work on “my” own relationship with God. Such an attitude is not helpful for the church, and, in the long run, is not helpful for the individuals either. One bishop in the Church of England writes, “The church isn’t simply a collection of isolated individuals, all following their own pathways of spiritual growth without much reference to one another. It many sometimes look like that and even feel like that…You can hide in the shadows at the back of church for awhile,  but sooner or later you have to decide whether this [community] is for you or not.”[1]

He is absolutely right. Sooner or later, we will realize that the other people in this place matter, even if we don’t really know their names or much of their stories. Sooner or later, it will dawn on us that God is more concerned with the formation of a moral community than God is with the formation of moral individuals.

And sooner or later we will realize that the world, even in its skepticism, is paying attention to followers of Christ and how they relate to one another. As impressed as we often are with well-run Rally Days, or worship that jazzes us up and hits home runs every week, or which pastors we call to serve us, those things eventually lose traction with the “tax collectors and Gentiles.” They really want to see the quality of our common life, the grace contained therein. The world wants to see how dedicated we are to embodying forgiveness—whether we take seriously our commitment to “owe nothing but love to one another,” as the apostle Paul reminds us in this morning’s portion from Romans. Those on the outside will take notice if we treat each other like dirt, or if we take the steps of grace that involve binding and loosing, the tedious but life-giving process of holding each other accountable and extending mercy.

The one thing about practical instructions from the Bible is that the sermon ends up sounding more like a “how-to” seminar than an opportunity to announce God’s grace. To a certain degree, there’s nothing a preacher can do about that. But what I can announce today is that Jesus has some skin in the game. This is not just a list of instructions we’re left to do by ourselves, and the hard work of negotiating forgiveness will not be done in a vacuum. “Whenever to or three are gathered in my name,” Jesus says, “I am there with you.”

These words are spoken by someone who knows what the hard work of forgiveness really means, how you have to hang in there with those who have wounded you and often have to live with the brokenness for a while. Just as sure as we are that the cross means complete forgiveness for all of our brokenness, we also have the assurance that Jesus is always on the side of those seeking to restore broken relationships, ever-present with his steadfast love.

The middle hymn this morning, which I suspect was new to many of you, was written several years ago by a man who grew up during the Nazi occupation of Holland. His family had sheltered a young Jewish woman and a political prisoner—and he watched three of his grandparents die of starvation—before they immigrated to England. He eventually became an ordained pastor and hymn-writer. The words of this particular hymn were written by couples he was counseling who were going through divorce. Here is a hymn that is literally borne of people who are literally seeking the path of forgiveness and restoration, people who trust the Lord is with them in the midst of it, just as he promises. The third verse is perhaps the most moving. Speaking to God, it goes,               

“You in us are bruised and broken: hear us as we seek release.
From the pain of earlier living; set us free and grant us peace.”

“I am there among you,” Jesus says to his disciples. And one day he shows his hands and his side, and he opens his arms. Waving us in, he says, this is for you. He invites us to his table—tax-collectors and Gentiles, and everybody who bears some kind of scar, themselves. “Eat,” he says. “Drink. Come, let’s get practical.

Trespassers welcome!

Thanks be to God!


The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

[1] Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense. N.T. Wright. HarperSanFrancisco, 2006 p203
[2] “God, When Human Bonds are Broken,” words by Fred Kaan. ELW #603