Sunday, September 28, 2014

By Whose Authority

Matthew 21:23-32
September 28, 2014

            “Because I said so.” 
            These four words are four of the most basic, simple, seemingly benign words in the English language.  Yet when I was a child these common words, strung together, had the power to undo me.  I hated hearing them.  To my way of thinking, they were the epitome of all that was unfair and unjust in the world.    
            All I wanted to know was, “why.”  Why can’t I do this or why do I have to do that?  Yet as a kid, it seemed like the only response I ever received from my parents to my sincere inquiries about the limits enforced upon me was “Because I said so.”  So I swore on everything I held sacred that when I grew up and had children of my own, I would never, ever say those four words to my own kids.  I would always carefully and lovingly explain to my children why they couldn’t do something or why I expected something of them.  I would strive to ensure that my children understood my reasoning.  “Because I said so,” would be anathema in my home.  Never say, “Never.”    
            Becoming a parent makes you understand your own parents a lot better.  My parents were not tyrannical authoritarians.  They would often talk to me about what their expectations were of me, and why they made the decisions they did.  But there just weren’t enough hours in the day to answer my every questioning of their authority with, “Amy, we love you.  Your well-being and safety are more important than anything.”  “It is our job as parents to teach you responsibility, to make sure you can function in society on your own”  “We take seriously our task to rear you to be an engaged, thoughtful, compassionate, caring citizen – not just of these United States, but of the world that God has given us.”  “And we set these limits for you, Amy, because no matter what the standardized tests say about your intelligence, sometimes your decisions make us question whether you and your brain leave the house at the same time.” 
            “Because I said so.”  It is a statement of authority.  I am the parent and you’re not.  Even though as a child I didn’t like hearing it or understand it, as a parent I know that I have to be the parent. I’m the parent, you’re not.  This is my expectation.  This is my decision.  “Because I said so.”
            Authority lies at the heart of this passage in Matthew’s gospel.  That is the question asked of Jesus when he comes into the temple.  The chief priests and elders approach him while he’s teaching and ask, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” 
            As always, I think it is important for us to understand the context in which they asked this question.  This was not just a random day in the temple; significant events had occurred leading up to this moment and this question.  Chapter 21 begins with Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, or what we know as Palm Sunday.  He rode into Jerusalem and was greeted as king.  This cast the entire city into confusion and tumult.  From there Jesus went to the temple and “cleansed it.  That’s rather an innocuous way to describe what Jesus actually did.  He overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of the ones selling doves.  He drove them out, and charged them with turning his Father’s house into a den of thieves!  Once they were gone, he healed people.  The blind and the lame came to him to be cured.  Children sang hosannas to him and proclaimed that he was the Son of David.  This angered the ones in charge, the religious authorities.  Jesus left the temple, went to Bethany to spend the night, and the next morning, as he made his way back to the temple he stopped by a fig tree, hoping to find some fruit for breakfast.  However, the fig tree was barren; no fruit, just leaves.  So he cursed the fig tree and it withered at the sound of his voice.  The disciples were understandably amazed, and Jesus, in his explanation, ascribed it to faith.  If you have more faith than doubt, you can tell a mountain to throw itself into the sea, and it will happen. 
            Now we come to our passage.  Jesus has returned to the temple.  He is teaching.  Again, the chief priests and elders, the religious authorities, come to him and demand to know by what authority he does and says what he does and says.  Who gave him this authority?  But their question is a trap.  If Jesus says the wrong thing, they can accuse him of blasphemy; which was not a light offense.  Jesus knows they’re trying to trap him, so he turns it back on 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.  Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” 
            The priest and scribes know that they have stepped into their own snare.  If they say that John’s baptism was of divine origin, then Jesus will want to know why they didn’t believe him.  Doesn’t that mean that they didn’t believe God?  If they say that is of human origin, then the crowds will turn on them, because the people believe that John was a prophet.  The only safe answer is the one they give.  “We don’t know.”  Jesus responds, “Well, if you don’t know, then I’m not going to tell you the origin of my authority.” 
            But he does tell them a parable about a father and two sons.  The father asks both sons to go and work in his vineyard.  The first son refuses, but changes his mind and does what his father asks.  The second son replies in the affirmative.  He will go and work in the vineyard, but doesn’t make good on his promise.  Jesus questions his questioners, “Which of the two did the will of the Father?”  They answer, “The first.”  Jesus then equates the son who does the will of the Father with tax collectors and prostitutes.  The sinners, the castoffs and cast outs of society, the ones who said, “No,” are the now the ones who go “into the kingdom of God ahead of you.”  John’s authority should have convinced you, but you didn’t believe him.  But the tax collectors and the prostitutes did.  They heard John.  They believed John.  They’re going into God’s kingdom ahead of you.
            I guess Jesus could have responded to their original question with, “Because I said so.”  He was and is the Son of David, the Son of God.  He had all authority.  Instead he tells them a parable about two sons, and he turns it back to John.  John came with authority, the authority of a prophet, but you wouldn’t listen to him.  Now you demand to know my authority?  Yet the people that you have deemed unfit to even be in your presence, much less God’s presence, heard John and believed him.  Perhaps the choice they made to live the way they lived was their way of saying, “No.”  But when they heard God’s call through John, they ultimately said, “Yes.”  But you who at first said, “Yes,” refuse to go where God now calls you. 
            As I said at the beginning, the issue of authority is at the heart of this passage.  The religious leadership questions Jesus’ authority.  Jesus in response refers to the authority of John.  But the true authority is God’s.  Think about the word authority and also think about a word that is related to it – author.  Scholar and preacher, David Lose, wrote that authority, unlike power, is always given.  We give people authority.  We elect our officials, and in their election they are given authority to govern on our behalf.  That is true in our denomination as well.  We elect our elders, teaching and ruling, investing them with authority to make decisions for the congregations they serve.  By calling me to be in this pulpit week after week, you invest me with a certain amount of authority.  I may not feel authoritative, but that doesn’t change the fact that I am believed to have it. 
            Jesus preached and taught with an authority that threatened the authority of the religious leadership.  They were the pastors of their day, and they wanted to know what authority Jesus really had.  It seems to me that Jesus points them, in his response and in his parable, not just to one with authority – John – but to the One who is the Author.  An author isn’t just someone who publishes a written work.  The other definition of author is someone who originates or creates.  God is the Author of all life.  God as Author gives authority.  Jesus, who is God with us, God’s authority embodied, is the author of the new life to be found in him.  John proclaimed that, but the ones who claimed authority couldn’t and wouldn’t accept it.  It was the ones without authority, the people whose very identities were defined by sin and by their “no,” who recognized the authority of John and Jesus, and changed their answer to “yes.” 
Sisters and brothers, the choice is ever before us.  God, the Author of life, calls us to do his work, to hear the authority in the words of his prophets, to accept and embrace the new life authorized by his Son.  How often have we said, “No?”  Yet the good news is that no matter how many times we’ve refused in the past, we are not defined by that.  We have not shut and locked the door to the kingdom through our own stubbornness.  Through God’s grace and mercy, through his abiding love, the door to God’s kingdom of abundance, love and peace is not closed.  We can open it with one word.  Yes.  What will our answer be?  I say make your answer, “yes," and follow through on that yes.  Why? 
Because I said so. 
Let all God’s children say, “Alleluia!”  Amen. 

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

The Abundant Life

This is my upcoming article for The Minister's Corner in the September 27, Shawnee News Star.

“And Jesus said to them, ‘Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.’”
       Luke 12:15

“And God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that by always having enough of everything, you may share abundantly in every good work.”
            2 Corinthians 9:8

“’The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy.  I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.’”
John 10:10
            The Discipleship Study Bible, New Revised Standard Version, 1989

            In the spring of 2005, our family went to visit my sister and her family in Greece. My sister, Jill, is married to a Greek and has lived there for many years. My kids were little, and the time change and jet lag were hard on them (and me), but my Greek family and my sister’s friends welcomed and embraced us wholeheartedly.  They took their call of hospitality seriously. It seemed that my sister’s friends wanted to have us over for lunch, or dinner, or an afternoon snack, or morning coffee – you get the idea. They love my sister, so they also loved us. 
            On one of the last nights we were in Athens, we were all invited – my family, Jill’s family, and the whole group of Jill’s friends – to another friend’s home for dinner.  Sitting around this long table, we ate wonderful food.  We talked and laughed. We toasted one another’s health and well-being.  My children were adored and cuddled.  One of Jill’s friends, George Stephanopoulos (no, not that George Stephanopoulos), reached across the table with a pitcher of water to refill a glass and accidentally spilled it on me.  He apologized profusely, and added, “Welcome to Greece.”  That only added to the night’s hilarity.  After eating, we danced traditional Greek dances, and finally wrapped up the party, exhausted but happy. 
            Looking back at that evening, I realize it was one of those moments when I understood a little more what it means to live an abundant life.  As the sample of scripture verses demonstrate, abundance is used in a variety of contexts.  But the word’s meaning is the same, whether it refers to something negative or positive.  An abundance of anything is to have an ample supply.  Abundant possessions; you’ve got a lot of stuff.  Abundant blessings; you’ve got a lot of blessings.  Abundant life; you’ve got more life?  I readily admit that the idea of abundant life challenges me.  I want to define it, but I can’t seem to find the language to do so.  Certainly, it seems that abundant life from Jesus refers to eternal life.  But I don’t believe that Jesus was only pointing toward a life after life.  I also think he meant abundant life right here, right now, in this life. But what does abundant life look like?  We know from Luke’s gospel that it isn’t just about a bunch of stuff, a glut of material possessions.  They may be nice and useful, but having more of them doesn’t equal abundant life.  It seems obvious that an abundance of blessings equates to abundant life, but do those blessings relate solely to us?  Is an abundant life merely a happy, giddy existence?  Or is it something more?
            Maybe an abundant life is similar to the dinner I described.  You are at table, breaking bread, with family and friends.  There is laughter and joy.  But also seated at that table are the “others” of the world.  A person who has been hungry is finally getting enough to eat.  A person whose life has been nothing but hardship and strife is finally laughing.  A person who has experienced only loneliness is now surrounded by loved ones.  A person who has lived in fear and danger now feels safe and at peace.  Perhaps sitting at that table are former enemies, now friends.  Perhaps sharing in that fellowship are people who have been forgotten or ignored.  Maybe gathered at that feast are those whose voices have been silenced, but now are heard. 
            I think that an abundant life is not a just a life focused on the blessings that I alone have been given; instead it is a life where my blessings are shared with others, and theirs with me.  An abundant life is a life that isn’t about momentary happiness, but about a life grounded in joy, trust, compassion, and love.  Maybe, just maybe, an abundant life is one where all are neighbors, and all are welcome at the table.  An abundant life is one where we all share in the abundance of good food, good things, and good works, making us abundantly grateful and abundantly glad to be gathered. 

Sunday, September 21, 2014

The Generous Kingdom

Matthew 20:1-16
September 21, 2014

            A favorite movie of mine is “A League of Their Own,” which tells the fictionalized account of the Women’s Baseball League.  The women’s baseball league was started in response to World War II.  Every able-bodied man of proper age was doing his patriotic duty and serving in the military.  Ball players were no exception. For the first time, it seemed as though baseball would be on hold indefinitely; at least until the war was won and the boys came marching home.  While I’m sure that providing America with its favorite pastime and supporting the war effort was motivated by patriotism on the part of the team owners, I imagine that they didn’t want to lose the profits from the game either.  So if Rosie could be a riveter, why couldn’t Betty be a ballplayer? 
            Rosie the Riveter is an enduring icon from that time, but the truth is that women who went to work in the factories were not necessarily welcomed with open arms by the men who still worked there.  As the movie depicts, women were not a welcome sight on the ball field either.  The idea was denounced by men and women alike.  Because they were women, and the fear was that traditional femininity was at stake, they had to endure things that no male ballplayer would ever have to put up with.  I’m not talking about harassment.  I’m talking about charm lessons, chaperones – even though some of the women were married with children, uniforms that were cute and skimpy enough to catch men’s eyes, but covered enough that they wouldn’t be seen as obscene.  Either way, they were impractical for playing ball.  A catch phrase heard in the movie was, “dirt in the skirt,” meaning slide into base, no matter what.  They were mocked by spectators at the games, and told repeatedly that girls can’t play ball.  But the women endured.  The ones who tried out for the league and made the cut played hard and they played well.  Eventually the idea of women’s baseball began to be accepted and appreciated, even if it was done begrudgingly by some. 
            But it was still women playing a man’s game.  A critical moment in the movie came when Ira Lowenstein, the marketing man who made the idea of women’s baseball take shape and find acceptance, was told by Walter Harvey, the main team owner, that the leagues were going to be dismantled after that season was over.  The allies were winning the war.  It wouldn’t go on much longer.  The boys would be coming home and coming back to baseball. 
            Lowenstein makes an impassioned plea for the league to continue.  The women worked so hard.  They would play a double-header one day, drive all night on a bus to the next town, and play again the next.  They played with broken fingers and bruised bodies.  This is what it’s going to be like when the war is over, isn’t it, Lowenstein tells Harvey.  Women were told it was their patriotic duty to leave the kitchen and go into the factory.  Now they have to leave the factory and go back to the kitchen.  In response, Harvey says, you want the boys who are coming home from war to go into the kitchen?! 
            After all, what is implicit and explicit in our culture is that the first shall be first. 
            This idea of the first shall be first isn’t new to us, to the western world, or to the people living in this century or the last.  It is a cherished belief that seems to have been held by cultures and societies throughout history.  It was certainly the ideal in Jesus’ time.  That’s why what he says about the least and last is so ultimately offensive.  And I think this parable, unique to Matthew’s gospel, is perhaps the most offensive of them all. 
            A landowner goes out early in the morning to hire day laborers for his vineyard.  This would not have been an unfamiliar example to the people hearing Jesus tell this story.  In reality the landowner himself would not have done the hiring.  That would have been left up to his manager.  But it was not uncommon for laborers to gather in a central place in the market and wait to be hired for work.  As Jesus tells it, the landowner gets there early and hires workers.  They agree on a day’s wage, and the workers go to the vineyard.  At nine am, more workers are still needed.  So the landowner returns to the market and hires more laborers who are still waiting.  This happens again at noon, and at three, and at five. 
            It’s often assumed by people interpreting this passage that the laborers who were hired at five were lazy.  They must have overslept and gotten there late.  But there is nothing in the text to indicate that this is true.  They just weren’t hired in the first few rounds.  At five when they landowner sees them standing in the marketplace, he asks why were they standing there all day.  “Because no one has hired us.”  I suspect that they had families to feed same as the others who were hired before them.  They needed work, so they waited as long as they had to.  The landowner gives them that work.  They go to the vineyard and join the other workers.  The end of the work day rolls around and the landowner instructs his manager to pay them all the agreed upon day’s wage, beginning with those hired last.  The people hired first thing see the last getting the same wage they were supposed to get.  So they automatically assume that they will get more.  After all, they were first.  They’ve worked the longest.  Shouldn’t they get more?
            But all of them, those who were hired first thing, those who were hired midday, and those who were hired last, all are paid the same.  And those who were hired first were not happy about it.  They bring their complaints to the owner.  We have worked all day long in the scorching heat.  We’ve carried a full day’s burden.  But these people who only worked an hour get the same wage that we do?  The landowner doesn’t seem to understand their complaint.  He tells one of them who was complaining, “Friend, I am doing you no wrong.”  The ones who had been there all day were not cheated of their wages.  The wages that they agreed to are the wages they got.  It’s the landowner’s choice that those who were hired last would be paid the same.  It’s his money.  It’s his choice.  Then he says what I think is the key sentence in this parable, “Or are you envious because I am generous?” 
            Are you envious because I am generous?
            When I preached on this passage three years ago, I told you a story from one of the scholars I used as a resource.  I’m going to tell it to you again.  This pastor/scholar spoke about a woman in a church he once served.  This woman was faithful in her commitment to the church and in her study of scripture.  She always read ahead in the lectionary to see what passages would be preached on.  But whenever the lectionary rolled around to this parable, she wouldn’t come to church.  She didn’t want to hear it.  It made her furious.  It made her so angry because to her it just wasn’t fair.  I think the people who heard Jesus tell this parable didn’t think it was fair.  I imagine it made them pretty mad as well.  I think, if we’re really honest, that it angers us too.  If we’re honest, we would have to admit that we don’t think it’s fair either. 
            But somewhere in our human thinking and reasoning, we have confused fairness with justice.  I don’t think they’re synonyms – at least not as we find justice to be defined in scripture.  Fairness is about our demand to get what’s ours.  That’s mine, not yours.  I worked here all day, I should be paid more.  That’s fair.  But justice is about what’s right.  I think justice, real justice, God’s justice, stems from love, from compassion, from a desire to see all, even the least, cared and provided for.  Doing justice for the least of these wasn’t about giving them whatever was left over.  It was about putting them first, caring for them in their weakness, because we who are stronger are able to and required to and should want to.  It’s not about being fair.  It’s about being just.  William Sloan Coffin wrote about it this way, “When we are intent on being, rather than on having, we are happier.  And when we are intent on being, we don’t take away from other people’s being – in fact, we enhance it.  But when we are intent on having, we create have-nots – and invariably lie about the connection.” 
            I think what drives us in our need for fairness is fear.  If someone else has something, it might take something away from me.  We are envious of other people’s good fortune.  We are envious of the generosity shown to others; not because it hurts us, but because we are afraid that it will.  The people who were hired first were not cheated.  They were not harmed.  Their jobs weren’t taken away and given to those hired last.  They were all paid what was promised.  Maybe it’s not fair that those hired last were paid the same, but it was just.  It was generous. 
            Are we envious of that kind of generosity?
            The Reverend Tom Long, who in my eyes is kind of a rock star of preachers, told a story once about a City Council meeting he attended when he lived in Atlanta.  The neighborhood where he lived was a nice one; perhaps not wealthy, but well off.  But there was a proposal before the council to construct low-income housing in that well off neighborhood.  That would mean that people in a far lower income bracket would be moving in, and the fear was that undesirable elements would come with them. 
            So interested parties on both sides of the issue had gathered to put in their two cents for the council’s consideration.  A woman stood up to speak.  She was a single mother.  If the housing went through, she would be eligible to take advantage of it.  She told the council and all those gathered there that having this housing would give her and her children stability and security.  Her children would have the opportunity to attend better schools, and get an education that would help them rise out of poverty.  She pleaded with the council members to make this housing happen, so she would have a real chance at bettering her life and the lives of her kids. 
            After she was through speaking, a resident of the neighborhood spoke.  He looked at the woman and said, “I earned my right to live in this neighborhood.  I earned mine.  You earn yours.”  Long said that at first he was right with the guy.  “Yeah!  That’s right.  I earned mine.”  But then he remembered the One to whom he belonged.  He remembered the One who said that the first shall be last and the last first.  He remembered the One who showed grace and mercy, even when – especially when – it wasn’t fair.  This wasn’t an issue of fairness.  It was an issue of justice.
            In this parable that I dread preaching and many of us dread hearing, Jesus isn’t speaking about fairness.  He is speaking about justice.  He is speaking about generosity.  What complicates this is that this isn’t just any old parable.  It is another one of those pesky kingdom parables.  The kingdom of heaven is like …  The kingdom of heaven is not a place of special privilege, where a few get more because they somehow believe they deserve it.  The kingdom of heaven is a just kingdom.  The kingdom of heaven is about living in a state of being where we aren’t as worried about fairness as we are about living with compassion and love.  The kingdom of heaven is a generous kingdom.  Are we envious because God is generous?  After all, God has been abundantly generous to us.  Let all of God’s children say, “Alleluia!”  Amen.