Saturday, October 25, 2014

How Do You Know That I Love You?

Matthew 22:34-40
October 26, 2014
William G. Carter

When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, “’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

With that, the Pharisees were silenced, just like the Sadducees before them. It is Finals Week for Jesus. The scholars have put him through a series of final exams. They wait for him to trip up but he passes every test. In terms of theology, Jesus is untouchable. Morally, he is innocent, and personally, beyond accusation. They will have to get rid of him another way. Yet for the moment, he scores a hundred on the exam.

“Which of the 613 Jewish commandments is the greatest?” That’s what they want to know. He does not answer foolishly, selecting for instance, the laws about dealing with mold on your walls (Leviticus 14:37) or touching a corpse (Lev. 22:4) or consulting a fortune-teller (Lev. 20:6). Indeed there are Jewish laws for those sorts of things. The commandments gave direction for all aspects of daily life. It declared what foods are filthy and which days are holy.

But the greatest commandment was known by everybody in Jesus’ day. You sift through bits and pieces of holy guidance and you find the governing center of them: you shall love God. Love the Lord your God. Love the Lord your God with all your human abilities: the heart at the center of your being, the soul at the center of your breath and your passion, the mind at the center of intellect and reason. Love God with everything you are.

Moses first declared it from the mountain of Deuteronomy. “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is One; and you shall love the Lord your God.” That has always been, and always shall be, the first and greatest commandment. Love God.

Yet it seems to be the most slippery of commandments to keep. How do you love the Lord your God whom you cannot see? It is far simpler to do all those other things that God’s Torah declares: drain the blood out of chickens before you eat them (Lev. 7:26), stone all the mediums who host séances (Lev. 20:27), and rest on the Sabbath (Lev. 2:23). Those rules are clear. But love God? How do we love God?

I think this is more awkward that religious people will acknowledge. Religious people will quickly insert a lot of obligations here. They will say things like, “If you love God, you’ll show up for committee meetings. If you love God, you will fill out a pledge card. If you love God, you will fold newsletters this Wednesday. If you love God, you will come to my Bible study.” If I might pipe in here, Bible studies, newsletters, pledge cards, and committee meetings can all be wonderful things. They make a congregation buzz with energy.

But what’s the Big Deal at the center of it all? Today let me tell you a few brief stories, and testify to what I think it’s all about.

First, the heart. Ever spend any time on the cardiac floor? Last year on my 53rd birthday, I met my friend Virginia for lunch at Five Guys for a burger and fries. It was a great day. I had cleared the afternoon of appointments. I looked forward to some family time at night. I even had a preacher lined up for the weekend, so all I had to do on Sunday was show up and smile. But there was a persistent tightness in my chest. It wasn’t the cheeseburger; it had been there for a week or two. I could hear my mother in my imagination, telling me to slow down, advice she has always given but never taken. So after lunch with my friend, I dropped by the doctor’s office, got an instant EKG, and was sent to a local hospital in a high-priced room. Happy Birthday to me.

I wasn’t very happy about it, but I’m too old to argue. I ran through a stress test and everything was fine. But my chest still ached. On Friday afternoon, the cardiologist stopped in and said, “You know, we think it’s a viral inflammation in your lungs, but we want to be sure.” That was what it was: pleurisy. But you know what that means on a Friday afternoon? It means you have a weekend to wait it out before the catheterization on Monday morning. That was annoying, especially since Monday’s test would later prove there was absolutely nothing wrong with my heart, and hospital incompetence would keep me there until Tuesday noon.

But a couple of things happened. There was an endless stream of friends: the pastor of Covenant church stopped by to deal a few hands of poker, a stack of abusive birthday cards made me chuckle, my wife who never takes a sick day for herself took two sick days to look in on me, and the guest preacher that I had booked stopped by twice to see me and pray. In the evenings, after visitors were dismissed, I stretched out in the hospital bed, listened to the fairly regular announcements of doom down the hall, and I found myself giving thanks for my life.

“Thank you, God,” I prayed out loud with my eyes open. “Thank you for this good life which I did not earn. Thank you for the many people who love me. Thank you for a good heart still ticking. Thank you for the reasonable nurse who shows me compassion. And thank you for that chicken cheese steak with extra peppers that I’m going to order the second I get out of here.”

Ever face the point of extremity? With the prospect that everything else could be scraped away? And what do you have? You have God. You have the God who created you, the Christ who gave himself to take away your sins, the Spirit who comes to fill you. In that moment, I loved God. With my heart.

Second, with my soul. “Soul” is our translation of the Hebrew “nephesh.” It is the living being, the essence of you that is alive. It is the exhilaration you feel on a roller coaster, the gasp you exhale when you see a mountain vista, the joy that seizes you when you see a brand-new baby. That’s the “nephesh,” the soul, the part of you that sings. So my second brief story is to tell you how I spent a weekend of the last two summers: I went singing with Bobby McFerrin.

Many of you have heard the story, so I’ll keep short. At a retreat center in Rhinebeck, New York, the ten-time Grammy award winner Bobby McFerrin leads an annual singing workshop. It’s pretty expensive, so I go only for a couple of days. And I’ve never known anything like it. 180 people are circled up in four part harmony, as Bobby and his colleagues give us improvised parts and we build a non-verbal symphonies on our feet. We sing spontaneous songs lasting ten or twelve minutes.

The immediacy of God’s Spirit that fills that room is palpable. I’ve been to Pentecostal prayer meetings that couldn’t hold a candle to the power of that joyful singing, led by Bobby, a quiet Episcopalian. And then, Judy Cutler and I go over to the salad bar for lunch, and Bobby slips up, sits down, and wants to talk about the Bible with us because he knows we are Presbyterians.

Now, all the glitter and adulation of stardom aside, have you ever bubbled over with joy? Has it ever happened with singing? I tell you, God is real because God has gotten into my lungs. And I can’t keep him there, I have to let him out so my voice can blend with others who are experiencing the same thing. The soul of biblical faith is the powerful experience of God. God cleanses, God heals, God can bring us completely alive – mere descriptions of the experience are empty. I’m testifying to the Real Thing: you can love a God that not only gives you life but brings you alive. That’s the soul of saving faith.

And then, the mind.  The noggin, the brain. It’s a different but complimentary way to love the Lord our God. The rabbis would say, “An hour of study is an hour of prayer.” We honor God, not by yammering on with religious clichés, but by engaging the intellect, by mentally stretching to understand a God who is greater than our understanding.

When my niece was little, we went for a walk by Grandpa’s oak trees. Enormous trees, and I said, “Laura, look how big they are!” She looked up, her eyes full of wonder. I bent down to pick up an acorn and said, “The next tree is hidden inside of this.” She touched the acorn in my hand and said, “How did God put it inside?” As far as I know, she never took a kindergarten botany class but she was asking the right kind of question.

This is a wonder-filled world and we can study what the ancients called, “the book of nature.” We can get outside and marvel at the arteries and veins of maple leaves, the ripples of Appalachian hills, the persistence of dandelions. Many of the proverbs of Scripture come from observations from nature. “Go to the ant, you lazybones, consider its ways and be wise” (Proverbs 6:6).

And beyond the book of nature is the larger book of Scripture, written for people like you and me, who trust God but want to grow in our understanding. We don’t study scripture as if it is some magic book, so we can manipulate the world to meet our needs. No, we go to scripture to hear the witness of how those before us have understood the mind of God.

The Bible can teach us what we might not otherwise know. The Bible points to a tribe of escaping slaves and says, “Freedom from unjust suffering.” The Bible points to an executed man on the cross and says, “He is your life and hope.” The Bible points to the horizon beyond what we can see and says, “It’s all going to turn out well for those who love God” (Romans 8:28). We wouldn’t know any of that, except as we study and learn about God. And we find ourselves loving God with the mind.

Heart, soul, mind. Do we have some sense of what it is to love God?

This is the core of it all. This is what must come first. We love our neighbors because of God, who gave the neighbors to us. We come together to sing and pray because of God at the center of our fellowship. We extend God’s compassion to those in need, because all of us are in need, and without God everything would collapse.

So this is how I want to talk about Stewardship Sunday – by inviting us to love God. That’s the center. That’s what comes before everything else.

·           If anybody ever talks to you about the church budget, ask them what that church budget is doing for God – because that’s the only thing that matters for a church of Christian people.
·           If anybody ever lays a guilt trip on you and says, “You ought to be doing more,” you remind them of how the scriptures say, “God loves a cheerful giver, not under obligation or compulsion.” (2 Cor. 9:7).
·           If anybody looks sad, grim, or anxious when it comes time to share what we have, speak gently to them of Jesus, who taught us to love God first, to love God completely – and then showed us sacrificially the extent of what that means.  He gave his all.

So that’s what I want to say about the Christian life. Not just about stewardship, but the whole Christian life. It’s about loving God with the heart, for God gives us this gift of life. It’s about loving God with the soul, for God can transform us inside and out. It’s about loving God with the mind, as we explore and pursue the things that God cares about. Heart, soul, mind – that’s the whole person.

And if we love God that completely, then loving God with the wallet is not so much of a stretch. In fact, generosity is the expression of our joy. 

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

The Money In Your Pocket

Matthew 22:15-22
October 19, 2014
William G. Carter

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.” When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.

I was reading somewhere about a woman who worked for the Internal Revenue Service. Her job for the IRS was to track down people who weren’t paying their taxes. Needless to say, it was a thankless job. She traveled through the hills of Appalachia, knocking on front doors and hearing people scramble out the back doors. If she actually found somebody, they often screamed, “You have no right to do this!” One old coot took a shot at her.

But she was persistent and rounded up a lot of tax evaders. She also heard a lot of excuses. The taxes are too high. The government does too little. The government does too much. The government is inefficient. The government didn’t make my money. The government didn’t use my money as I believe they should. The government didn’t send me a tax form so why should I fill one out? I didn’t vote for those people anyway, so why should I give them any taxes? And then there was her favorite excuse: we needed the money for something else – a house, a car, a flat screen TV.

I don’t know about you, but I pay my taxes. You never know if there is a hidden microphone, but it’s true. If I receive one of those computer-generated letters from the IRS, my heart beats a bit too fast. Once the tax people wrote and said that I had accidentally overpaid, and a larger refund was on the way; it took me three days to overcome the fear and open the letter. Even then, I read it over a few time to make sure that’s what it said.

So this Bible story about paying taxes has always struck me as a little odd. Back in chapter 17, some tax collectors wanted to know if Jesus paid his temple tax, to which Simon Peter piped up and said, “Sure, he does.” (17:24-25) The temple tax is what kept the temple going – it paid for the sacrificial animals that declared sins are forgiven. It was part of the tithe of every Jewish man.

But to pay tax to the emperor, to the Caesar in far-off Rome? That was a much different matter. And they wanted to know if Jesus believed they should pay it. And if you were listening to story, you know this is a freighted question. They are looking to trip him up. If he says, “Yes, we pay it,” he concedes to a pagan empire that occupies his country and taxes the people who live there to pay for the occupation. If he says, “No, don’t pay it,” he stands out as a rebel and they can hand him over to the empire. It’s a pretty slick question.

Add to the question the context: they ask this in Jerusalem, a heavily occupied city. It is Passover time, the city population swells, more soldiers are stationed, and tempers are already boiling. Jesus has already pulled a stunt by riding his Palm Sunday donkey into the Holy City, so everybody is watching him pretty carefully.

Not only that, he’s gone into the temple to toss over the tables of money-changers. Who were the money-changers? They translated the pagan Roman currency into Jewish temple money, often charging an exorbitant rate and plundering the people who really couldn’t afford it. Jesus turned over those tables in anger, so the religious leaders are really watching him.

And they pose the question, “Does the law of Moses permit us to pay money to Rome for these soldiers? Does the Torah teach that we should pay a foreign empire for invading our city?” They are looking for an interpretation of the Bible, and they are watching what he is going to say.

So what does he say? He says, “Anybody have a quarter?” There’s a pause and somebody has a quarter. Now, wait, I thought they were supposed to change the money and not bring it into the temple. They’ve had a couple of days to reset the moneychangers’ tables, and one of them is walking around with Roman money in his pocket?!? That’s idolatry. It has the image of Caesar and declares him a false god. And it’s really bad form; Jesus calls it “hypocrisy.” They want to pounce on him for the very thing that they have conceded to do.

Then we get the really famous line from the Lord: “Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, give to God what belongs to God.” Their jaws drop and they walk away. Matthew says they had the same stunned look as did the women outside the Easter tomb: they were amazed.

It was a stunning, amazing, slippery way to get through a sticky situation. Jesus says, “Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, give to God what belongs to God.” But did you notice? He never specifies who gets what.

That’s the most frustrating part of the story. In good Jewish fashion, he answers their question with a question: should we pay that tax? Who has a coin for that tax? And then again, whose face is on this coin?  Jesus never pins down what belongs to Caesar and what belongs to God. He does not provide a checklist. The burden is on the people who hear him to figure it out for themselves and hope they get it right.

What belongs to Caesar? Well, every year I fill out a pile of papers and send in whatever I owe. It’s a thick pile and I have to pay somebody to help me figure it out. And on top of it, I’m considered self-employed (since I don’t have a bishop), so I have to subtract another 15.3% from my compensation and send that in, too. The church doesn’t pay my social security, I have to do that. My accountant says, “That’s what belongs to Caesar.” Pay it now or he will find you later.

Everybody wishes they could pay lower taxes. But I am glad to pay what I owe. I know what it covers: the drainage system in Chinchilla, the agencies searching for the cure for Ebola, the state police looking for that gunman in the woods. Taxes pay for clean water, fair trade, safe highways, good education, and countless ways for our lives to flourish and grow in a fairly open society. I’m OK with that.

I also know the taxes go to protect the free speech of people I’d rather not listen to, a gaggle of politicians who refuse to work together and don’t get enough done, and endless controversies about the issues du jour. Some of that bothers me, but I figure that’s the rent to pay for living in a representative democracy. I’d rather live here than in Ancient Rome or Occupied Jerusalem. How about you? Jesus said, “Give Caesar what belongs to Caesar.”

And then he said, “Give to God what belongs to God.” So what belongs to God?

One answer comes from a Psalm that Jesus and anyone else in that Temple would have known. Psalm 24:1 – “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, the world and those who live in it.” To put it another way, everything belongs to God. The soil, the seas, the creatures, the people – nothing is excluded from God’s possession. That is the vision of scripture. Everything comes from God, everything belongs to God. According to the Psalm, God doesn’t draw boundaries as we draw boundaries. God doesn’t get the leftovers; God gets the whole thing.

So that’s one answer. It’s pretty general.

What belongs to God? Here’s another answer that Jesus and everyone else in that Temple would know. From Exodus 19, on the night before God gave the Ten Commandments, God said, “If you listen to my voice and keep my covenant, you will be my treasured possession out of all the peoples.” That is, the people who listen to the living voice of God, and keep the commitment to God that God has to them, they shall be God’s treasured possession.

Well, I’ve spent a lifetime around church people, so I prefer the King James Version of that verse: “Ye shall be a peculiar treasure.” (Exodus 19:5). That’s the truth. Peculiar, all right. There is something distinctive about the people who listen to God and keep the Holy Relationship alive among themselves. They worship together, pray together, study the Bible together, serve together, care for one another, sing together. They are God’s peculiar treasure. They belong to God.

What belongs to God? A whole world, to be sure. A distinctive faith community within that world. Again, Jesus does not parcel this out. He puts the burden to figure out where we put our energy, where we put our time, where we put the money that’s in our pockets. We have to give to God what belongs to God.

A woman named Judy was speaking to one of the parents in her church. The mother had insisted her children be baptized, but she said they were too busy to come to church. “I’m afraid we don’t have time for worship,” she said, “not with soccer and cheerleading on Sunday mornings. We have a full plate. Maybe in a few years. We will show up once in a while, when nothing else is going on.” Well, for her, what belongs to God? Only the leftovers, I’m afraid. She’s either letting her kids call all the shots, or she’s too busy keeping her kids busy.

It is a struggle to give God what belongs to God. I know that. My kids can tell you stories of what it was like to grow up in our house. Church came first, because God came first, because I was the parent. And if they grumbled because we didn’t do Saturday night sleepovers, I reminded them that my parents never gave me a choice on where I would be on Sunday morning, because they were good parents. They committed to shaping my life in the hearing of God’s Word and the keeping of God’s covenant. I knew I was a child of God, claimed by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Even if I didn’t know what the words of the hymns meant, we were still going to sing them together until the words made sense.

I know it’s a struggle. These days there is so much calling for our attention, so many distractions to tug us this way or that. We live in a culture obsessed with entertainment, telling us something is only worthy if it is fun. We also live in a sea of competition, telling us we are valuable only if we win. And then somebody lies to us and gives us a trophy even if we come in last place. Why? Because that makes it fun. It’s so confusing.

So take the money out of your pocket and give it a good look. It is a symbol of your time and labor, but it is a symbol also of the life you have been given. That breath you just took, that conscious thought, that twitch of the muscle – it all originates from God. Caesar didn’t give that to you; maybe he thinks he did, but all things come from God. You can take that quarter and spend it on something, spend it on anything, although it’s not going to purchase as much as it once did. Maybe it will buy an hour in a Clarks Summit traffic meter, or a gumball from a machine.

But what if we gave it to God? What if we gave it to God first, to declare that Caesar doesn’t own me, that the Empire doesn’t own me, that my work doesn’t own me, that my distractions don’t own me, that my friends don’t own me, that my ceaseless  schedule doesn’t own me? Only God is worthy of my complete attention and my wholehearted commitment. What belongs to God is . . . me . . . and you . . . and all of the daily gifts that we take for granted. It matters what we do with what we have received. God delivers what Caesar cannot. God is worthy of it all.

So I was thinking about how to wrap this up, seeking some kind of inspirational quote, when I bumped into my bookshelf and a book fell down. It was a book by the Quaker Thomas Kelly, and here are the words that opened for us:

We are trying to be several selves at once, without all our selves being organized by a single mastering Life within us.  Each of us tends to be, not a single self, but a whole committee of selves. There is the civic self, the parental self, the financial self, the religious self, the society self, the professional self… and each of our selves is in turn a rank individualist, not cooperative but shouting out his vote loudly for himself when the voting time comes… We feel honestly the pull of many obligations and try to fulfill them all. And we are unhappy, uneasy … and fearful we shall be shallow. For over the margins of life comes a whisper, a faint call, a premonition of richer living which we know we are passing by… Life is meant to be lived from a Center, a divine Center. Most of us have not surrendered all else, in order to attend to the Holy Within.[1]

Ah, it’s God who is at the Center, God who can ground us from the Center, inviting us to offer only what He has first given to us.

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

[1] Thomas R. Kelly, A Testament of Devotion (New York: 1941) pp. 114-15.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

But I Thought I Was Invited

Matthew 22:1-14
October 12, 2014
William G. Carter

Once more Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying: "The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son. He sent his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding banquet, but they would not come. 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.' But they made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business, while the rest seized his slaves, mistreated them, and killed them. The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city. Then he said to his slaves, `The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.' 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.

"But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe, and he said to him, `Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?' And he was speechless. 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.' For many are called, but few are chosen."

Maybe it is an occupational hazard, but I have seen a lot of crazy things that happen at a wedding. Perhaps it is the monogrammed nature of the event, with most couples wanting to add their own personal stamp to a day that is pretty much identical to everybody else’s. We have all seen the bubbles, the balloons, the birdseed, and the best man who gives an inappropriate toast. A lot of weddings feature a drunken uncle or the cousin who suddenly overcomes a fear of dancing.

I have given the benediction to two lovebirds who roared off on matching motorcycles. Or there was that day when I yelled at a photographer who climbed over these pews to get a good shot. My very first wedding featured a few ushers who stood out in the narthex and handed out bottles of Budweiser to the guests as they arrived. And I know about the bridesmaids who hid a goat in the bridal suite on their best friend’s big day.

But only once have I encountered a bouncer posted at the door of the reception. He was 6’5,” shaved bald like Mr. Clean, with an ominous scar on his upper lip. It was a shock to see him. “I’m here to keep the ex-husband out,” he announced. And it worked.

That picture comes to mind when I return to this strange parable in the Gospel of Matthew. There is a bouncer at the party to which everybody has been invited. The host is a king who has gone to extraordinary lengths to fill up the banquet hall. He invited the people on his A List, but they would not come. He invited them again, saying, “Look at all the food, everything is ready – I want you to come!” But they refused, ignored him, turned abusive and murderous. So the king, in his rage, blasted them away. Let me remind us: this is the Gospel of Matthew, which specializes in over-the-top parables.

Then, like the owner of the vineyard in chapter 20 who hired workers all day, like the landowner in chapter 21 who persisted in chasing after his rent, the king of chapter 22 sent more servants to invite more people to his party. The A List had refused, so he invited the B List, the C List, anybody who would come. He wants a full banquet hall. He insists on every chair filled.
Yet when he appears at the door to work the crowd, he sees some poor sap who shouldn’t be there, so he motions to the bouncers and they toss him out of the room. The lesson is “Everybody is invited, but that doesn’t mean you can stay.”

Earlier in the week, I surveyed some of my preacher friends and asked, “What are you going to do with this one?” My friend Susan was probably the clearest in stating, “It’s a hundred times easier to talk about idolatry and the golden calf.” Indeed it is. Anybody can wag a finger at the manufactured deities that otherwise Christian people worship and devote their money. It’s a lot harder to hear that God’s Kingdom is like a big party where everybody is welcome but some get tossed out.

It helps a little bit to remember this parable is in Matthew’s collection. Matthew snarls a good bit, hurling verbal thunderbolts to scare people out of hell. He hovers over those stories Jesus told where an unfaithful investor is thrown into outer darkness, or the story about the slave who has been forgiven but cannot forgive somebody else and thus is tossed in the dungeon. Jesus told other kinds of stories, too, but Matthew prefers stories where people get punished. I wonder what kind of people were showing up in his church.

It is Matthew, only Matthew, where Jesus is quoted as saying, “Not everybody who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ is going to enter my kingdom, but only those who do the will of my Father” (7:21-22). It’s Matthew who can’t stop wagging his finger at the hypocrites, at the people who put on a good face when their hearts are ugly. In other words, they are faking it. “Play acting” is the literal meaning of “hypocrite.” They put on the outward show, they say all the right holy jargon – but that’s not who they are at all.

Like this poor sap who shows up at the wedding banquet: he’s in the right place, but he doesn’t look right at all. There is an inconsistency between how he looks and where he is. And when he is called on it, he can’t even find the words to explain. No, sadly no. He is a fake.

I think I know this man. I have seen him in my own bad dreams. Know what I mean?

Back in my last year of college, I was required to take a class that I did not want to take. I knew I didn’t want to take it, because I tried to take it two times and backed out quickly. Once with a tough professor, once with an easy professor. I hated the class, so I dropped it like a hot potato and took something else. The academic department disagreed, and stated if I was going to get my diploma, I had to take the class.

So I bought the textbook ahead of time, read it, and said, “This is easy.” I signed up for the class the third time, and then I did what every immature student does when his parents are spending a lot of money on his education: I skipped all the classes. I didn’t go. But I show up to take the midterm, and I knew the material cold. I went in, I took the test, I aced all the answers, and with a triumphant grin, I walked forward to hand my winning exam to the professor. And then he said it, “Who are you?” Uh… uh… I had no words. He did give me the A, but I was exposed. He knew I was a fake.

I have never forgotten the feeling, the fog of inconsistency, the sense of disconnection. I was in the wrong place, pretending to do the right thing. Ever have that feeling yourself? It’s like a bad dream

I have the dream sometimes. It’s a funeral of somebody well loved, and it’s going to be well attended. That day, the church is already full, the parking spaces are taken, and I wake up late. There’s no time to shave, I didn’t have time to iron my shirt, and they are waiting for me. I rush in to pull on my black robe, but it doesn’t fit. So I yank it and it rips, but it’s time for the service to begin. So I rush into the sanctuary, I don’t know where I left my sermon, and they are all waiting for me to speak –and I look down, and I don’t know these people at all. I’m in the wrong church. And unanimously they look up at me and say, “Who are you?”

It’s a bad dream. Nobody wants to be exposed as an imposter. Nobody wants to be seen for how inadequate they really are. Try as you might to hide it, try as you might they will learn the truth about you – that you don’t know what you’re doing, that you don’t know which fork to use, that you have forgotten your hostess’ name, that you have no business being there. And you don’t even have the proper wedding gown to pull over your head.

Matthew’s parable is pretty extreme at points, but this part is dead-on accurate. Everybody else got the memo on how to dress. Everybody else knew where they were and how they needed to act. The king had no trouble spotting the one who didn’t fit in, the one who did not belong. With perfect clarity, the king says, “Buddy, how did you get in here?” He’s busted. It’s one of those bad dreams.

Why do I call it a dream? Because of what somebody points out about this parable:

“Real people don’t turn down a king’s dinner invitation, much less torture and kill the messengers who came to fetch them. Because once you have a whole ox and several fatted calves on serving platters, they won’t keep while you wage war on a whole city, kill its inhabitants, and torch the place. Because who really expects someone napped in the middle of [daily chores] to have a clean wedding garment in the back of the truck?”[1]

Jesus tells this fantasy story as a way of getting to a real issue. He calls it a parable, which is like a fantasy or a dream. It’s a big spacious story where we can walk around, smell the banquet, hear the dance, see the variety of faces, and then spot that one hapless imposter who is truly in the wrong place. And that’s when it reveals its message.

All of us know the problems of being a hypocrite. It takes a lot of energy to maintain an extra persona. You say one thing but you do another. You say, “Have a great day” to the person at the check-out line and blast your horn at the slowpoke in the parking lot. You tell everybody how worried you are about the homeless, the hungry, the young people – but then you never lift a finger to help. You announce how important it is for people to be generous, but you yourself never write the check. You tell your family you love them, but all they see are the evaporated words going into the air. It takes such energy to construct a false face.

As Matthew reports it, nowhere is this more obvious than in the realm of religion. In his day, religious people had an endless capacity to make up lies about how good they are – they talk a good talk about living righteously while they plunder the poverty of widows, they use the privileges of their institution to put a burden on the backs of other people. They preach the prophets of Israel, calling out the idolatries of their land, while ignoring the man who needs a cup of cold water and warm place to stay the night.

Meanwhile there’s another kind of hypocrisy, too, a fear that, maybe if I am exposed, I will not be included. That if they really knew how inadequate I feel, they wouldn’t want me around. Some of you know what I mean. You can hold the hymnal right-side up and sing all the words, but you aren’t confident that they apply to you. You try so hard but you’ve never excelled. People pat you on the back and say “great job!” but you have a hard time believing it. You see the obviously unworthy man bounced from the king’s wedding banquet, and you live in terror that maybe you are next.

So here’s the thing – we walk around in the parable, smell the banquet, see the dance, and if there is any way that it confronts us, then we have the opportunity to be healed. To have the false self expelled and the true self revealed. To welcome the truth that exposes before it welcomes. It is, as one old theologian said, “To accept the fact that we are acceptable to God,” just as we are, not merely as we wish others to see, but as we are: broken, needy, hungry to be loved – and welcomed to a generous banquet that we could never manufacture ourselves.

This is the Gospel’s invitation for us. The place cards have our names handwritten. The King will do anything to get us to come, all in the hope that we will want it enough that we will stay. The invitation is for all who come as they are in the grace of Jesus Christ, and not merely as they discount themselves or want others to imagine them to be.

So we come . . . We come in the simplicity of our baptismal gowns, we come in the integration of our words with our deeds, we come in the great truth that God’s Rule over us is a festive celebration, after all, a wedding of heaven and earth where the will of God is done and the love of Christ is made real.

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

[1] Barbara Brown Taylor, unpublished sermon on this parable

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Getting the Boot from the Vineyard

Matthew 21:33-46, Isaiah 5:1-7
World Communion
October 5, 2014
William G. Carter

Jesus said: “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. When the harvest time had come, he sent his slaves to the tenants to collect his produce. But the tenants seized his slaves and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. Again he sent other slaves, more than the first; and they treated them in the same way. Finally he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.” So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him. Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” 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.” 

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’? 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. The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.” When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them. They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, because they regarded him as a prophet.

On a recent visit to the wine country of New York, I heard the unusual tale of Walter S. Taylor. Walter S was the third generation of a wine-making family. Perhaps you remember the famous Taylor Wines of Hammondsport, New York? That was his family’s business.

Walter S was a feisty character with high standards. He regularly angered his neighboring vintners by accusing them of low standards. Rumor was they imported California grape juice in railroad tank cars after dark, and still sold their product as Finger Lakes wine. In one memorable speech at a national convention, he blurted out, “When the wineries of Keuka Lake bottle their product, the water lever of the lake drops several inches.” Shortly after that, probably for the sake of public relations, Taylor Wine fired Walter S.

It didn’t slow him down. He started the Bully Hill winery on family land, overseeing the use of local grapes and keeping the standards high. Meanwhile, Taylor Wine went through some changes. The company was sold to Coca Cola, probably not a good idea. One day, Walter S discovered they had a federal injunction against him: he was not allowed to use the Taylor name on any of his own products, he could never imply that Bully Hill was a continuation of Taylor Wine nor that the winery sat on Taylor Family property. What’s more, any labels or promotional materials that mentioned to his last name had to be handed over to Taylor Wine for destruction.

Walter S thought that was ridiculous, too over the top even for him. So you know what he did? He loaded up a manure spreader, the old fashioned way, then put the labels and promo materials on top. He dressed in bib overalls and climbed on his three-wheel motorcycle to lead the manure spreader four miles through town to the offending winery. The people of Hammondsport thought that was grand. They came to the street corners and began to cheer: “Give me a T! Give me an A! Give me a Y-L-O-R. What’s it spell?” And the people shouted, “Nothing!”  Then he dropped his load on the Coca Cola property.[1]

In my mind, Coca Cola should never have gotten into a family wine business. Within a few years, they sold the whole shop to Seagrams, another company ill-prepared to make quality wines. Seagrams sold it soon after, and it continue to rot on the vine. Meanwhile Bully Hill continues to flourish. Shortly before his death some years ago, Walter S was written up with admiration by the food critics of the New York Times.

It is a cautionary tale. We can lay it beside the thinly-veiled parable that Jesus told. Both stories declare there are guaranteed ways to lose a vineyard. Here are only three:

  • forget what you are in business to do
  • show persistent disrespect for the Founder and those who follow him
  • get swept up in acts of force which are nothing but a distraction from your reason for existing
All of this is a parable. The lessons are many. It can be applied to businesses, public schools, and even governments. When Jesus spoke the parable, the leaders of the Jerusalem Temple perceived he was telling it against them.  Maybe so; that’s how parables work. If the shoe fits, it’s intended for you.

Yet they should have seen it coming. For seven hundred years, they had onto a poem from the prophet Isaiah called “the Love Song of the Vineyard.” It begins essentially the same as Jesus’ parable: “My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill.” It goes on to say how much he showed his love for it: he cleared it of stones, planted premium vines, carved a vat out the rock and built a watch tower around it . . . but it yield sour grapes, wild grapes. He had done everything to make that vineyard flourish, but it turned out to be a major disappointment. So it was abandoned until it fell apart. Isaiah said, “That vineyard is God’s people.”

As for the vineyard of Jesus’ imaginary story, it was equally loved, equally cared-for. But the custodians didn’t take care of business. They refused to pay the rent. Their negligence turned to abuse, as those in charge beat up the rent collectors, murdered another, threw stones at another.

By all accounts, the Founder of the Vineyard should have stopped there. But no, he was abounding in good will and steadfast love. So he sent his own Son to collect the rent and they crucified him. The tenants were so twisted that they believed they could inherit what only rightly belonged to the Son, if only they got him out of the way.

“What do you think is going to happen to them?” asked Jesus. The tenants of the Temple said, “They should be destroyed.”

Pregnant pause. Let the truth sink in.

These days, the Bully Hill winery seems to be flourishing. It is perched up on the hill, high above Keuka Lake. The young lady in the tasting room popped open a bottle and cracked a number of jokes. I didn’t ask if her name was Taylor; there might still be a federal injunction from her telling us. But it was clear she knew what business she was in: to produce the best quality grapes and the finest possible wine. Nobody there was interested in becoming the biggest winery. Walter S was right: if you want to be the biggest, you will water down your product. That’s the truth; it happens with churches all the time.

And then we went looking for the old Taylor Winery, now called something else. The signs were gone, couldn’t find it right away. “Maybe that’s it,” my wife said, and we pulled in an empty parking lot. The front steps were crumbling, the paint was peeling. The visitor’s center looked pretty shaggy. Turns out, all the wine in the tasting room was made somewhere else.  So what do you think happened to them?

On World Communion Sunday, we uncork the wine of Jesus Christ. We do this to remember why we are here: to pour the living Word of God into our cups, to drink Christ into our blood streams, to digest the Gospel and turn it into raw energy, and then to live together a life that matters to a hurting world and produces fruit. We are here because the Son that they thought they got rid of is the One who comes back to choose people like us. And the obligation is the same: he wants us to become fruitful in his vineyard.

He doesn’t have to give it to us. In fact, he could take it from us and give it to somebody else, because it is his vineyard. We are only the tenants, the stewards of Somebody Else’s beloved land. He expects us to come up with the rent. He wants us to grow the best harvest we possibly can. He really wants us to do that, and he is watching to see what we do.

For the caution comes to our generation from the great prophet Joni Mitchell: "Don’t it always seem to go / You don't know what you got til it's gone / They paved paradise and put up a parking lot."[2]

So today, with these parables circling over our heads, what is the Word of God for us? I think it’s something like this: chosen of the Lord and precious, remember whose vineyard this is. Live charitably. Love abundantly. Speak truthfully. Forgive generously. Pay the rent. Most all, bear fruit. Bear a lot of fruit.

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

[2] Joni Mitchell, “Big Yellow Taxi,” © Siquomb Publishing Company.