Sunday, October 26, 2014

Our Refuge -- Reformation Sunday

Psalm 46
October 26, 2014

            In the days and weeks following the terrorist attacks of September 11, we were a people in chaos.  We were a people afraid. Even though I lived far away from where the attacks happened, and I had no direct connection with anyone who died on that terrible day, I still lived in a state of constant fear.  I’m sure I wasn’t alone.  In one clear, sunny morning, every illusion we had of being safe was shattered.  On September 10 I could put my children to bed, lock the doors, and feel safe and non-threatened.  On September 11 that disappeared.  It hasn’t really returned.  It’s no wonder then that in those days and weeks after the attacks, people across our country -- perhaps across the world – turned to God.  Attendance at religious services went up in record numbers. Whether they attended a church, a synagogue, a temple, or a mosque, people turned to God looking for some comfort and reassurance in the midst of that nightmarish time of death and destruction.  People turned to God, and from large services such as the memorial service held at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. to smaller services of prayer and mourning in churches of all shapes and sizes, the psalm we read today was heard.  Psalm 46. 
            “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.”
            That was a time of trouble all right, so it makes sense that this particular psalm was read, heard, and clung to. One definition of the word refuge is “something to which one has recourse in difficulty.”  The psalmist describes God as being our refuge, but this psalm also serves as a refuge of sorts.  Post September 11 was not the only time that people have sought refuge in these particular words of poetry.  Although I don’t have proof, it wouldn’t surprise me if this psalm wasn’t read after many national crises.  Wars, attacks, assassinations – whenever trouble hovers like that proverbial dark cloud and chaos looms large, this is a go-to psalm.  It is a psalm of refuge about a God of refuge. 
“God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.”
It is no accident that Psalm 46 is part of the texts for the observance of Reformation Sunday.  I don’t know if its history or legend, but this was supposed to be Luther’s favorite psalm.  The hymn he is best known for, the one that we sang in our worship today, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” is based on this psalm.  “A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing.”  “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.” 
I can imagine why this psalm was important to Luther.  Certainly, he must have needed to lean on its reassurance.  When you take on the church and its time-honored rituals, you’re going to need reassurance.  You’re going to need a refuge.  Although Luther and the other reformers weren’t fighting a war in the typical sense of the word, they were engaged in a battle of sorts. A fellow preacher wrote that while we are in denominations that are considered reformed, and we have a definite reformed theology, we are not called reformists.  We are called Protestants, because our ancestors, both of the DNA variety and the spiritual sort, protested.  They protested abuses in the church and in the societies in which they lived.  They protested injustice.  They protested social ills.  They protested rites and rituals which seemed contrary to the gospel.  They protested.  The reformers that we remember and honor this day both reformed and protested.  They actively engaged the powers and principalities of the church and demanded change.  They protested for what they thought was right and true to the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Yet whether we talk about the Reformation as protest or reform or both, it is exhausting.  To demand change, to work for change, to challenge the powers that be, to put life and limb on the line for what you believe, it is exhausting.  I admire the men and women who led the Reformation for many reasons; most notably they paved the way for the church we sit in this morning.  But as I reflected on all that I know about the Reformation this past week, what I found myself returning to again and again, was their persistence.  It was persistence in the face of persecution.  It was determination in spite of the dispiriting circumstances they found themselves in.  It was courage and conviction to say and do what they believed was righteous and just, even though common sense may have warned them otherwise.  Doing all that must have been exhausting.  Surely there must have been times when they were weary; weary in body, mind and spirit.  They needed a refuge. 
Reformers like Martin Luther needed actual, physical refuges.  I told a dear friend that it amazes me that he lived out a natural lifespan.  He should have been executed, and I know he came close a few times.  So, yes, he must have needed places of refuge to hide and to continue his work.  But he must have also needed a place of spiritual refuge as well.  So we come back to our psalm.  Listen to these first verses again.
“God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.  Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea; though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble with its tumult.”
The physical world is in upheaval.  The earth is changing.  The mountains are shaking.  The sea waters roar and foam.  If the mountains weren’t changing before, they now tremble from the tumult of the seas.  But in the midst of this physical chaos, for that is what I think is being described; there is “a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy habitation of the Most High.  God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved.”
Even though chaos and quaking and trembling and shaking is happening all around, there is a river of peace.  That’s the feeling I get from that.  It is a river of peace.  It is a river in a city that cannot, be caught in the upheaval and turmoil happening all around it.  It is the city of God.  And God is in the midst of the city.  Everything around it might be tumbling down, kingdoms, nations, and so on.  But God’s city is a place of peace.  God’s city is a place of calm.  God’s city cannot be moved.  It is a place of shelter and refuge.  God is our shelter.  God is our refuge. 
            While the reformers, the protesters needed physical places of refuge, they also needed a refuge of the soul, the heart, the spirit.  That is what I hear being described in this psalm.  The city of God isn’t just a peaceful destination; it is the place where God dwells.  And in God we find our refuge.  In God we find our strength. 
            As I said before, a refuge is something to turn to in times of difficulty.  Looking around the world these days, it seems to me that we need God as our refuge more than ever before.  Not since September 11, has the world seemed so unsettled.  I feel this way.  I know others have expressed this feeling as well.  Looking at all the trouble in the world – wars, physical and ideological, epidemics, poverty, hunger, natural disasters and the disaster we’re making of nature – this psalm seems more needed than ever before.  We need to find refuge in God.  We need to take shelter in the peace of God.  Our world feels so chaotic and unsafe, finding refuge in God seems the only way to bear it. 
            Yet even as the world seems unsafe, our own lives can feel unsafe, chaotic, and unsettled.  Many of us live with an underlying sense of dis-ease.  It is easy to feel that God is far away, from our world, from us.  But the psalmist and all of scripture assures us that God is not far away or distant or removed.  God is in our midst.  So hear again these words of calm, of peace, of refuge.
            God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.  Therefore we will not fear, though we fail to care for the earth we have been given, though wars over power and position are being waged and justified in God’s name.  Therefore we will not be afraid, though violence invades our cities, our places of work, our schools, our homes.  We will not be scared, even though so many of us don’t know when we will eat again or where we will sleep at night.  We will not be anxious because money is tight and debts are high, because change is upon us and we don’t know what will come next.  We will not give into our fears, because we trust that God is with us.  We trust that God is here.  We hold onto God’s strength and in God our tired souls find refuge.  We will not fear because we are in God’s hands and God’s hands are good.  Even though the world seems to be falling apart at the seams, the world is still God’s.  Chaos and confusion can change that or change God.  God’s city is the midst of us.  God is our refuge.  In God we do not hide from the terrors of the world.  In God, we find the peace and the strength and the courage to go into the world, to proclaim God’s Good News, to be the instruments of God’s peace, to share through word and deed God’s reconciling love. 
God is our refuge and our strength, a very present help in trouble.  Therefore we will not fear because God is with us and we are God’s.  Let all of God’s children say, “Alleluia.”  Amen.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

What's In Your Wallet?

Matthew 22:15-22
October 19, 2014

            “What’s in your wallet?” I want to give credit to the good folks at for the idea for the title of today’s sermon.  One of the commentators on their podcast mentioned this as a potential title, and I jumped on it.  Unless you watch absolutely no television whatsoever, it’s hard to not know those four words.  “What’s in your wallet?”  This has become a cultural catch phrase due to some funny commercials featuring Vikings and a few celebrity spokespersons; Alec Baldwin and Samuel L. Jackson, to name two.  The ads are for the Capital One credit card, and it promotes the idea that shopping and banking with this particular credit card earns you rewards.  Capital One makes even Christmas shopping easier, and earns the user so many travel rewards that you can bring your whole Viking gang on trips.  Each commercial, whatever its particulars, ends with that catch phrase, “What’s in your wallet?” 
            Of course the point of the commercial is to get people to apply for Capital One credit cards.  But I think that the underlying message it makes is that it is not enough to just have a credit card, the brand of credit card counts.  The name, the image that is emblazoned on that credit card also counts; maybe even more than the card itself.  So what’s in your wallet?
            This idea is played out in our story from Matthew’s gospel.  For the first time in a while, our passage isn’t centered on Jesus responding to his questioners with a parable.  The Pharisees have been confronting Jesus since he came into Jerusalem and into the temple.  But this confrontation is different.  Not only are the Pharisees trying to trap Jesus, this time the Herodians have joined in as well.  We don’t read about the Herodians on a regular basis.  In fact I think this story may be the one time they are mentioned at all.  Perhaps in a casual reading of this story, we might just accept their presence without question, but it is significant that this group we know little about are siding with the Pharisees against Jesus.  Consider the name; Herodians suggests Herod.  Herodians were Jewish leaders who allied themselves with Herod and the Roman Empire.  The Romans were the occupiers, the alien force who held them and their land under the empirical thumb.  Just as tax collectors were despised and given their own special category for sinfulness because they collected the taxes demanded by the Roman government, the Herodians would not have been popular or loved.  Certainly the Pharisees, the religious leadership and authorities, would not have cared for them.  But here they stand together trying to trap Jesus.  Picture the most extreme leadership of the Tea Party uniting forces with the most extreme knee-jerk Liberal in the Democratic Party to defeat a common enemy, and you may have an idea of how unusual and how radical this confrontation in the temple was. 
            Both groups hated Jesus.  Both were threatened by him.  He’d been stirring people up for a long time, but before he was a nuisance, an annoying thorn in their collective side.  Now he had become dangerous.  So, as Matthew tells it, they plotted to entrap him. 
            “‘Teacher, we know that you are sincere and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality.  Tell us, then, what you think.  Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?’”
            Jesus knows what they are trying to do.  The text says that he was “aware of their malice.”  He turns the question back on them.  He asks them to show him the coin that they used to pay the tax to the emperor.  They produce a denarius, and he asks them to tell him whose head and whose title is stamped on the coin.  The emperor’s.  Then, Jesus says perhaps some of his most well-known words.  “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”  Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s. 
Over and over again, this has been interpreted through the lens of separation of church and state.  See, even Jesus implies that there is a dividing line between them.  The two should not mix.  Keep them separated. Yet that kind of political and religious separation is our modern understanding.  Given the context and the culture of the time, I doubt that anyone listening to Jesus or even the first hearers and readers of Matthew’s gospel would have thought in those terms. Religious law was the law.  There would have been no separation between the two.  But that’s also why the empirical tax was so odious. 
This tax was the Roman census or the “head tax” that was instituted when Judea became a Roman province.  The tax was not only considered unfair, it went against Torah.  The land of Israel belonged to God alone.  Since Caesar was a usurper, paying the tax was considered an act of disobedience to God.  Not only would Caesar’s image have been on the denarius, the inscription would most likely have read something like, “In Caesar we trust.”  Caesar was not just the governing ruler; as emperor, he was, for all intents and purposes, a god.  So paying the Roman head tax meant that the Jewish people consistently broke the first two commandments.  They put another god before the Lord God, and they used a coin that bore a graven image.  When Jesus asked to see the coin, he essentially asked the religious leaders what was in their wallet.  How interesting that they could produce this coin which went against the Law and he couldn’t.  How interesting that they could produce this particular coin in the temple. The hypocrisy of that, of the religious leaders having a coin like in this in the holiest of places, was not lost on Jesus. 
Even when this passage isn’t interpreted as a reason for separation of church and state, it is used as a way for believers to find their way through a complex world that is driven by money.  Just give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and the rest goes to God.  Sounds simple, doesn’t it?  But real life is a different beast altogether.  We are, like it or not, driven by money.  It is a reality of our lives.  You need a certain amount of money just to survive.  If you don’t have it, survival can be tough to say the least. I get enough calls every week asking for assistance with utilities and rent to know how necessary having money is, and, more importantly, what it means not to have it.
            Yet we don’t like to talk about money in church, not unless it’s stewardship emphasis season. Even with stewardship we’d prefer that the money talk only happen on that one Sunday.  Once that Sunday is over, we can return to not talking about money the rest of the year.  But money is being talked about in this passage.  While I think that it is a critical element of this confrontation, what I really think is being called into question is allegiance.  Perhaps when Jesus questioned the Pharisees and the Herodians about what was in their wallets, he was also questioning their allegiance?  Who do you belong to; God or the emperor? 
            Jesus was the master at turning questions meant to trick him back onto those doing the questioning.  But the question of allegiance, the question of priorities is also asked of us?  Who do we belong to?  Where does our allegiance lie? 
            We might glibly answer that we, of course, belong to God.  Along with that everything we have, everything we are, everything in God’s creation belongs to God.  Yet how does our answer play out in our daily lives?    
            I don’t really know.  I’m not sure that it does in my life.  I certainly don’t think there are any easy answers to the question of my allegiance.  I know that just making a separate check list of what belongs in which category doesn’t really work.  In theory it should.  I’ve tried.  But in reality, those kinds of categories are ambiguous at best.  Like it or not, as much as I believe and proclaim that my allegiance is to God first, money is always an issue.  Money is a part of our lives and its necessity is not going away.  Part of being citizens is being responsible for taxes and paying our bills, etc.  But if we claim and that we belong to God, shouldn’t that impact how we view money and how we spend it? 
            Again, there are no easy answers. We live in a consumer culture, and I am a consumer.  But I am a child of God, first.  If I can remember that, and try to live in light of that, then perhaps how I spend my money will reflect that truth more closely. 
            David Lose told a story about a former pastor who encouraged her parishioners to engage in an interesting experiment.  One Sunday, they found markers in each of their pews.  She invited them to take a marker and make a cross on a credit card or debit card, or even a bill or coin, and look at that cross whenever they shop.  Lose said that he still spent money, but he began to notice that when he shopped he was more mindful of what he was buying.  He was more intentional about his purchases.  When he pulled out his credit card with the cross on it, he found himself asking, does this purchase reflect my faith?  Does it make manifest that I, and everything I have, belongs to God? 
            I need to ask those questions of myself.  When I pull out this card, does what I’m buying make manifest that I belong to God? 
            At the beginning of this sermon, I quoted the Capital One commercials.  “What’s in your wallet?”  The point of the commercials is that what’s in your wallet, the credit cards you carry, the brand you proclaim, counts.  They’re right, but not about credit cards or brand names.  We proclaim who we give our allegiance to, who we belong to, in all that we say and in all that we do; including how we spend our money.  What does our spending say about our allegiance?  Who do we belong to?  What’s in your wallet? 
Let all of God’s children say, “Alleluia!”  Amen.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Come to the Feast

Matthew 22:1-14, Isaiah 25:1-9
October 12, 2014

            The late humorist, Erma Bombeck, wrote about the horrors of the banquet table.  Whenever she and her husband, Bill, would be invited to attend a banquet, it seemed that Bill was always seated at the opposite end of the table.  Erma wrote that not only was she not seated near her husband; she also seemed to be seated between two people she didn’t know.  When she would turn to make polite conversation with the person on her left, he would be in an animated conversation with the person on his left.  It was the same with the person on her right; he would be engaged in an intense discussion with the other person sitting next to him.  So she would sit, talking to no one, turning her peas and carrots into mosaic art.  Once, a person sitting across and several seats away from her waved at her.  She didn’t recognize him, but thought she must know him somehow.  After all, he was waving at her.  She waved back, smiling brightly.  He mouthed something to her, but she couldn’t understand.  So she leaned forward, dragging her necklace through the mashed potatoes, and mouthed, “What?”  Again, he silently formed his question, but this time she understood him.  “How’s Marjorie?”  Not having a clue who Marjorie was, she pantomimed back, “She’s fine.”  Then she realized that he was talking to a person two seats down from her. 
            No, the banquet table, indeed banquets in general, are not for everybody.  So it would seem with today’s parable from Matthew.  While Bombeck’s story is funny, our parable isn’t.  But a bit of humor seemed the most positive way to open a window into a difficult, even frightening parable. 
            With each week that goes by, Jesus’ parables are getting more and more challenging.  It’s painful just to hear or read them; making sense of them seems impossible.  The parable that we read this morning is not only difficult, it’s bizarre.  Following his last parable about a vineyard and wicked tenants, Jesus tells yet another difficult story.  This time it is designed to once again illumine the kingdom of heaven.  “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son.” 
            It’s not unusual to hear God’s kingdom being described in the language of a banquet or a feast.  We see this same sort of analogy in the beautiful language found in our passage from Isaiah as well.  I personally love the image of a feast or a banquet in the context of the kingdom of heaven.  It is a welcoming image, an inviting image.  It speaks of hospitality, abundance, joy, celebration.  The kingdom of heaven can be compared to a great party, where there is enough for everyone and everyone is invited.  That’s good stuff in my opinion.  But the image of banquet, of feast, takes a different turn in this parable. 
            “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son.” 
It could almost be the beginning of a fairy tale.  But what happens after this is not the stuff of Disney.  The king sent out his slaves to bring the folks who had been invited to the feast.  But the folks would not come.  In the version of this parable told in Luke’s gospel, the guests offer excuses.  I can’t come because I just bought some land and I have to go out and see it.  I can’t come because I have five new oxen and I have to try them out.  I can’t come because I just got married and I have to stay home.  But there are no excuses offered by the original guests in Matthew’s telling.  They just don’t respond at all to the servants. 
Then the king sends the slaves out again.  Basically the king instructs his people to tell the guests that the feast is ready.  Supper’s on the table.  Essentially it was the king’s way of saying “y’all come.” 
This is the king we’re talking about.  This isn’t a neighborhood potluck.  It’s an invitation from the king.  You would think that this announcement would have brought the invited guests running to the party, but two of the guests made light of the invitation and went on their way.  The other guests seized the slaves.  They mistreated them.  They tortured them.  They killed them. 
Just as in the parable we heard last week about the tenants turning on the emissaries of the landowner, this is an unexpectedly violent response to not just an invitation, but a royal invitation.  It is understandable that the king is furious at the treatment of his servants.  But the king’s response is unnerving as well.  The king sends his troops who destroy the murderers and burn their cities.  Think about that.  The servants are killed by the guests.  The murdering guests are killed by the troops.  It’s horribly violent. 
If we were reading this in a novel or watching this as a movie, we’d expect this to turn into an all-out war.  But once the murderers have been murdered, the king tells more servants that the wedding feast is still on.  This is what strikes me as so odd, so bizarre.  It’s as though the king says, “Well, that’s taken care of.  Oh look, the food is still warm.  Y’all come.”  But the king tells his remaining servants that the ones who were invited originally were not worthy.  So now they are instructed to go to every major intersection, every major thoroughfare and main street, and invite the people they encounter there.  Gather every person you can find, both good and bad, so that the wedding hall will be filled with guests. 
The people come.  The hall is filled.  The wedding banquet is full.  Everything should be copasetic, right?  No.  Not even close.  The king arrives in the hall to see the guests and he sees this one guest without a robe.  One guest.  He questions him about it. There’s a hint of sarcasm in the king’s use of the word, friend.  “Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?”  The hapless guest is speechless.  So the king orders his attendants to tie the guy up and throw him out.  And we are left with the final word, “For many are called, but few are chosen.” 
Had the parable ended with the inviting of all the guests, as it does in Luke, I think we could have overlooked the violence that happened early on.  Instead it ends with more judgment, more violence.  And a statement from Jesus that is, quite frankly, terrifying.  What does this mean?  What do we do with this?
  As always, context matters.  As I’ve said often these past weeks, we have to be careful to keep this as a parable rather than see it allegorically. 
The parables Jesus tells are getting tougher and tougher.  But the cross is getting closer and closer.  Jesus is well aware of the consequences for his words, yet he’s ready to accept them.  Jesus is willing to die.  Jesus knows that death is upon him, so what does he have to lose?  When you think about it in those terms, it’s understandable that his parables have a razor sharp edge to them.  If I knew for a fact that I was going to die soon, I’d like to believe that I would not mince my words.  I would say what I have to say regardless of the cost.   
So Jesus’ stories, his parables, his teachings have taken on an intense urgency.  Jesus is saying, again and again, “Look folks, the time is upon you.  Here is the kingdom of heaven.  Here is the invitation to come along.  Do you accept or don’t you?”
That’s what this wedding banquet really is, an invitation.  It is an invitation to be a part of this great feast that is being served in our midst.  And the invitation is urgent.  Come now.  The food is on the table.  Everything is ready.  Will you join us or not?
When the original guests don’t respond; when, in fact, they turn on the servants of the king, new guests are invited.  Anyone from anywhere can join the feast.  Certainly we can understand this call as inclusion of all people.  No longer is the banquet restricted.  All are invited.  This is the finale of Luke’s telling of this parable.  But Matthew’s gospel is an intense gospel and he doesn’t leave it at that. 
All are included in the invitation.  But our response still matters.  The clothes we wear count.  Here we come to what I think of as the strangest part of the whole parable.  That poor guest dressed in the wrong clothe wasn’t merely ostracized for being underdressed.  He’s thrown into the outer darkness.  Forget fashion police.  Try fashion hell.  Clothing in a parable like this one doesn’t just mean fashion choices.  Clothing represents change.  The guest who showed up without a wedding robe responded to the invitation of the king but hadn’t made any significant changes.  Hence the king responds with such terrible retribution.  You wouldn’t think that not wearing a wedding robe to a banquet that you didn’t expect to be invited to in the first place would bring such a horrible punishment, would you?  But that’s what happens.  It is a violent ending to a story of violence.
This seems to fly in the face of how we understand salvation and grace.  We affirm wholeheartedly that we cannot earn our way to heaven.  It is grace alone.  Yet, if we take this parable seriously, our response counts too.
Our response counts too.  I know that this is where the rubber meets the road.  I also know that more often than not I show up to the feast wearing my old clothes.  That’s what’s so frightening about this parable, that’s what is so hard to hear.  We may all be invited to the feast, but responding means that we have to work to change our clothes.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote about “cheap grace.”  It was his way of expressing that our response counts.  Yet while I know that grace isn’t cheap, I do believe that God’s grace is extravagant.  It’s given to me in spite of the fact that I don’t deserve one ounce of it.  But believing that does not negate the impact of this parable. Our response counts.  So where is the good news?  Is it just in our belief in grace, although that grace is not present in this story?  I don’t have a clear way of reconciling this.  Maybe I’m not supposed to.  Although this parable leaves me shaking in my unacceptable, shabby boots, I do have hope.  I put my hope in grace, true, but I also find it in the words of Isaiah. 
“On this mountain, the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear.  And he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; he will swallow up death forever.”
We are invited to come to the feast.  It is an urgent request, requiring a serious response.  But the good news is that it is a feast; a feast where all are invited.  It is a feast where tears and death and heartache will be no more.  We are invited to come to the feast, and we are cautioned to dress appropriately, but it is a feast.  It is God’s feast on God’s holy mountain in God’s magnificent kingdom.  It is a feast that changes not only the world, but us.  We are invited to come to the feast.  What will our answer be?  Let all of God’s children say, “Alleluia!”  Amen.