2012-09-30 12.50.11

Whose Image? – Sermon on Matthew 22:15-22

October 19, 2014

This is Laity Sunday in the United Methodist Church. We celebrate the part of our baptismal covenant that calls each member to be a minister, to live out faith through personal devotion to God and acts of service to others. Who makes up the laity of a church? Everyone who isn’t clergy – so that means each of you!

I like to use the word “we” when I talk about our work together, but this is one area where I can’t include myself in the picture. As clergy, my job is to help you, to equip you do your job. Yours is the work of the church; you are the laity who make ministry happen.

But what exactly does it mean to minister as a lay member of this church, our church? How is God calling each of you to grow closer to God, deeper in faith, and more active in the mission and ministry of this congregation? As Methodists, we have John Wesley’s model for discerning God’s will in our lives. It’s a four point framework that begins with Scripture, and includes the traditions of the faith, reason, and our own experience of encountering God, as we determine what is the good and perfect will of God for each of us, and for all of us together.

As we turn to scripture first, our gospel reading for today takes us back to the Temple court in Jerusalem, only a few days before Jesus will be betrayed. Jesus is still teaching about what it means to live in the kingdom of God, a kingdom that has already broken into our world and is growing toward its fullness. Because the kingdom of God is already present, but not yet complete, our citizenship in that kingdom rubs up against our very real day-to-day living in a broken world. Sometimes the conflict between worldly reality and kingdom living becomes confusing and uncomfortable. Sometimes we don’t know how to reconcile our allegiance to God with our worldly obligations. Jesus was faced with this same dilemma, and in today’s reading, he shows us how to live in the world while living into the kingdom of God.

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

Here’s the story so far: We’re still in the Temple on Tuesday of Holy Week. Jesus has already cursed a fig tree, challenged the authority of the chief priests and elders, and told parables to anger the Pharisees – and it isn’t even noon. That’s the setting.

The characters in this part of the story include Jesus, of course, but the rest of the cast has changed somewhat. Now, instead of the Temple rulers who challenged Jesus’ authority in the last chapter, the Pharisees have sent some of their own disciples to speak with Jesus. This is the only time disciples of the Pharisees are mentioned in the entire New Testament, so that might be an important detail to hold in the back of our minds. In addition to these disciples, the Pharisees have apparently taken advantage of the lunch break to enlist the help of their opponents, the Herodians. The Herodians weren’t particularly religious, but they supported the Roman authority given to Herod over Israel. An alliance between the religious Pharisees and the political Herodians was unusual – they only worked together because of their mutual fear of Jesus and his growing influence with the people. So we have Jesus, the Pharisees’ disciples, the Herodians who have joined them in an awkward alliance, and the silent onlookers who have gathered around Jesus to hear him teach. We have the setting and the characters. It’s time to introduce the plot.

As the Pharisees go off to conspire with the Herodians, they look for a way to force Jesus to reveal himself as a rebel against Rome or a blasphemer against God. Preferably both. They decide to start with flattery, hoping to get Jesus to let down his guard, so he will walk right into their trap. They describe his impartiality to all, and his disregard for rank, encouraging him to denounce Roman authority. At the same time, they refer to his sincerity and truthfulness, encouraging him to claim a level of righteousness that belongs only to God.

The problem these religious and political leaders set before Jesus is one we face every day: To whom do we owe our primary allegiance? When the law of the land seems to go against the law of God, what choice will we make? This is the problem in the story’s plot that must be resolved. They think they have set up the perfect “either/or” riddle, because whichever way Jesus answers, he’s going to offend one group or the other: he will either break Roman law or Temple law – he can’t have it both ways. They wait for Jesus to answer. They are sure they’ve got him now.

“Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites?” he asks. And we suddenly remember another conversation, at the very beginning of his ministry, when Jesus quotes Deuteronomy 6:16 to Satan in the wilderness:
Do not put the Lord your God to the test” (Matt 4:7).
In that conversation, Satan has invited Jesus to throw himself down from a pinnacle of the Temple, to prove that he is the Son of God. But Jesus knows better.

And now, facing the Pharisees and Herodians as they gang up on him, Jesus sees through their hypocrisy, just as he sees through ours whenever we pretend to submit to God, but hold in our hearts the desire to have our own way. We don’t like to think of ourselves as hypocrites. We don’t like to fall into that category Craig Groeschel describes in his book, The Christian Atheist: people who claim to believe in God, but who live as if God doesn’t exist. And those disciples of the Pharisees, who stood before Jesus, didn’t like it either. The Herodians might not have cared one way or the other, but those Pharisees considered themselves among the most faithful of all God’s people. They did not like being called hypocrites. At. All.

Let’s pause here at this point of tension in the story. Imagine you are one of those silent onlookers in this drama. Maybe you have been following Jesus as a faithful disciple throughout his ministry. You’re one of the insiders, one of the chosen twelve. You think you know this guy, this Jesus, but you are wondering how he’s going to wriggle his way out of this one. You’ve been close enough to hear him say, “The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and on the third day he will be raised” (Matthew 17:22-23). You may be wondering if Jesus is about to be arrested, and you are about to be left without a leader.

Or maybe you are one of the people who came to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover, and when you heard that this Jesus was preaching in the Temple courts, you went looking for him, to hear for yourself what this new rabbi was teaching. Maybe you were laughing along with the crowd when the pompous religious leaders heard their own words used against them. Maybe your heart was “strangely warmed” as you listened to this man teach with an authority that could only come from God. Maybe you have been wondering, as you listened, if this could be the Messiah after all. And now, you wait to hear what Jesus will say, how he will solve this riddle the Pharisees and Herodians have put before him. Because you are certain that whatever he says will force you to decide where your allegiance lies. Whatever he says will tell you if you should put your trust in him, or if you should walk away.

And Jesus says, “Show me the money.”

Notice that Jesus does not happen to have a denarius in his own pocket. But he’s pretty sure one of his challengers will have brought such a coin into the Temple. And he’s right; they hand him a denarius immediately, not even realizing they have exposed their own blasphemy, by bringing a Roman coin, bearing a Roman inscription that calls Caesar “divine,” into the Temple where God alone is to be worshiped as holy. But Jesus does not call attention to this. He turns the coin over in his hand and asks a question any child could answer. “Whose image is this, and whose inscription is on this coin?” And with this seemingly simple question, Jesus raises the stakes even higher.

You see, this wasn’t just any coin, but a coin required for paying a tax to the Romans. And it wasn’t just any tax. First century Jews had to pay their share of taxes, just as we do. But the tax that required payment with a denarius was the Imperial tribute, or “census” tax that had been instituted about the time of Jesus’ birth. It was the tax Jews paid to support the Roman occupation of Israel. The Jews had to pay one denarius a year to finance their own oppression.

I have to imagine it was the Herodians, those Jews who supported the Roman occupation, who answered first. “The emperor’s,” they said. “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”

You can almost hear the wind going out of their sails, can’t you? The Pharisees and Herodians are amazed. There is nothing more they can say, so they turn and walk away. Those who are gathered around Jesus are left to ponder what this all means. At first, it seems as if he has foiled his opponents once again with a “both/and” answer to their “either/or” question. But an unspoken question hangs in the air: If the image stamped on a coin determines whose it is, what has God’s image stamped on it? The Herodians and the Pharisees may have already left, but a deeper truth begins to dawn on the rest of us as we remember the story of Creation from Genesis:
So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:27).

You belong to God, for you were made in God’s image. Whether male or female, God created you to bear his own divine likeness. Your purpose, your calling, is to bear that image into the world as a constant reminder that God’s kingdom has a higher claim on each of us than this broken world of ours.

Some have used this passage to defend the separation of church and state. That isn’t what Jesus is talking about. Some insist that this is another one of Christ’s lessons on the proper place of money in our lives. It isn’t. This lesson isn’t even really about money at all. It’s about recognizing the image of God when we see it in one another, and calling attention to that image as a reminder that God is very present, even when we feel the most oppressed or threatened by the world around us. When Jesus says, “Give to God the things that are God’s,” he’s reminding us that all we are and all we have belongs to the one who created us, the one who loves us more than we can ever imagine.

At another time in Jewish history, another oppressive regime ruled over the nation of Israel. The prophet Isaiah described the love of God to people who had given up all hope, who were certain that God had abandoned them forever. We read in Isaiah 49:13-16,

“Sing for joy, O heavens, and exult, O earth;
break forth, O mountains, into singing!
For the Lord has comforted his people,
and will have compassion on his suffering ones.

But Zion said, “The Lord has forsaken me,
my Lord has forgotten me.”
Can a woman forget her nursing child,
or show no compassion for the child of her womb?
Even these may forget,
yet I will not forget you.
See, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands;
your walls are continually before me.

Not only do you bear the image of God, you have been inscribed on the palms of God’s hands. Not only are you inscribed on the Creator’s hands, but also on the hands of Christ, those hands that bear the marks of death on a cross for our sakes.

Sometimes the image we bear may be difficult to recognize. It may be distorted by the world’s inscriptions on our lives – what we wear or drive or eat, how we live and whose opinions we value. But under all those inscriptions is a deeper mark. It is the mark of the cross, drawn on us at our baptism, on Ash Wednesday, and at the time of our death. It is the mark that says, “You belong to the God who formed you, who loves you, who will not let you go.”

This is our primary identity: we are the beloved children of God. That identity is the filter through which we make all our decisions. It is the standard against which we must measure all our choices. Give to the emperor what belongs to the emperor. But give to God the things that are God’s.

Since we are in the middle of our stewardship drive, you may think I’m asking you to reflect God’s image by increasing your pledge. Since we are in the middle of nominating season, you may think I’m asking you to reflect God’s image by agreeing to serve on a committee, or at least complete the Time and Talent Survey that someone has graciously given time and talent to put together for us. I’m not asking you to do either of those things. I’m simply asking you to remember that you are the image of God shining out into the world, and the people you encounter every day, whether you like them or not, whether you approve of their actions or political opinions or theological beliefs – they also bear the image of God to you. Look for it. Recognize it. Know that someone is looking to you, often when you least expect it, to find that image and see it as a reminder that God has each of us marked on the palms of his hands.

Today is Laity Sunday in the United Methodist Church. We celebrate the part of our baptismal covenant that calls each member to be a minister, to live out faith through personal devotion to God and acts of service to others, to shine God’s image into a broken world until the kingdom of God comes in its fullness. Amen.

 

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Rejected Stone – Sermon on Matthew 21:33-46

Today’s passage follows immediately the one we heard last week, and it offers us, for the third week in a row, a story about a vineyard.

“Listen to another parable: There was a landowner who planted a vineyard. He put a wall around it, dug a winepress in it and built a watchtower. Then he rented the vineyard to some farmers and moved to another place. When the harvest time approached, he sent his servants to the tenants to collect his fruit.
“The tenants seized his servants; they beat one, killed another, and stoned a third. Then he sent other servants to them, more than the first time, and the tenants treated them the same way. Last of all, he sent his son to them. ‘They will respect my son,’ he said.
“But when the tenants saw the son, they said to each other, ‘This is the heir. Come, let’s kill him and take his inheritance.’  So they took him and threw him out of the vineyard and killed him.
“Therefore, when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?”
“He will bring those wretches to a wretched end,” they replied, “and he will rent the vineyard to other tenants, who will give him his share of the crop at harvest time.”
Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the Scriptures:

“‘The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone;
the Lord has done this, and it is marvelous in our eyes’?

“Therefore I tell you that the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit. Anyone who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; anyone on whom it falls will be crushed.”
When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard Jesus’ parables, they knew he was talking about them. They looked for a way to arrest him, but they were afraid of the crowd because the people held that he was a prophet. (Matthew 21:33-46, NRSV)

Even though we are hearing this parable a full week after the story of the two sons whose father sent them both into the vineyard, the original listeners heard it in the next instant. Jesus is still in the Temple court, it’s still Tuesday of Holy Week, the Temple Rulers are still standing there glaring at Jesus, challenging his authority to kick out the money changers and teach openly in the Temple courts. They are getting more and more angry, because Jesus has just clearly labeled the Temple rulers as worse off than tax collectors and prostitutes. But Jesus isn’t finished with them yet. He takes a breath, and starts in again with a new parable. The setting is still a vineyard, but this time, Jesus draws on an image that would have been familiar to most of those gathered around, especially those who had been trained in the scriptures. As Jesus begins this new parable, he purposely uses language from the fifth chapter of Isaiah, language that immediately tells everyone this isn’t just another vineyard story. Listen to the first two verses of Isaiah 5, and see if you hear the connection:

“My beloved had a vineyard
on a very fertile hill.
He dug it and cleared it of stones,
and planted it with choice vines;
he built a watchtower in the midst of it,
and hewed out a wine vat in it;
he expected it to yield grapes,
but it yielded wild grapes.”

The chief priests and Pharisees immediately heard the connection. They knew this would be a story about the relationship between God and his chosen people. They instantly recognized that this vineyard represented the Temple, and the servants sent by the vineyard owner represented God’s prophets.

We will have an opportunity to dig deeper into the parable itself on Wednesday night, and I invite you to come enjoy a meal and participate in the Bible study this week if you want to learn more about the parable of the wicked tenants. Today, let’s take a closer look at the proverb that Jesus uses as a punch line for his parable. Let’s think about what he means when he draws on the image of a rejected stone becoming the very cornerstone.

This familiar saying comes from Psalm 118, and it reminds us that the parable in chapter 20 about the workers who all received the same wage, no matter how long they worked in the vineyard, also ended with a proverb. This quotation from Psalm 118 would have been well known to the people who heard Jesus that day. Psalm 118 closes the “Full Hallel” that begins in Psalm 113, the songs of praise that were sung as the Passover lamb was being slaughtered. And Psalm 118 begins the “Great Hallel” that ends in Psalm 136. These were the songs of praise sung on the first night of Passover, as the meal was about to be eaten. Remember that this is Holy Week, and the feast of Passover is about to begin. This Psalm reference held significant meaning for those who heard Jesus use it, even though they did not know, as we now do, that he was referring to himself as the rejected stone.

What would cause a stonemason to reject a particular stone as a cornerstone? What attributes does a stone need to have in order to become the cornerstone? What is a cornerstone anyway?

My stepdad had two cousins who were bachelor stonemasons. They built a structure on the farm where they grew up that is a work of art. Each stone is fitted perfectly into its own space, like pieces in a puzzle. And on the northwest corner of the building, at the very base of the foundation, lies the cornerstone. The cornerstone is the first stone set in the construction of a masonry foundation. All the other foundation stones are set in reference to this stone, which means that the cornerstone determines the position of the entire structure. For the building to be sound, all the foundation stones must line up with the cornerstone as their reference point.

The other stones may be of various shapes and sizes, but because of its function as a reference point, the cornerstone needs to be of fairly good size, and relatively square. It needs to be a solid chunk of good quality rock, without defects. The whole building is going to rest on this stone, or be lined up with it, so most stones will be rejected for one reason or another. And this quotation from Psalm 118 about a rejected stone is the key to understanding the parable of the wicked tenants.

In Aramaic and Hebrew, the word for “stone” sounds almost like the word for “son” so this wordplay between the vineyard owner’s son in the parable, and the rejected stone in the proverb would have been quite evident to those who heard Jesus tell the story. When he identifies the builder who rejects the stone with the Temple rulers, it comes as a shock to his audience. Biblical scholar Klyne Snodgrass writes: “No Jewish listener would identify himself or herself with the tenants. Rather, the tenants would be evil people, possibly the Romans, who were violating God’s vineyard … The quotation says explicitly and dramatically what the parable intends: the religious leaders have rejected the son, … but this rejection will be reversed by God and the leaders will lose their role in God’s purposes.”[1]

So the parable, and the proverb from Psalm 118 that follows it, are primarily about response. How will we respond to the claims God has on our lives? Will we align ourselves with the cornerstone, or will we reject Christ in favor of our own desires, as the wicked tenants did? Are we willing to accept the responsibility that goes with the privilege of living in covenant relation with God? Can we give God our all, in response to the limitless grace we are offered?

The answers lie in our alignment with Christ as our cornerstone. Staying in line with Jesus keeps us in line with God and his purposes for us. God has laid the cornerstone in Jesus, but the foundation and the building of the kingdom of God must be made up of other stones, what Peter called “living stone.” In 1 Peter 2:4-6 we read,

“Come to him, a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight, and like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. For it stands in scripture:
“See, I am laying in Zion a stone, a cornerstone chosen and precious;
and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.”

We are those stones, when we are arranged in perfect alignment with our cornerstone, Jesus Christ. But how do we do that, exactly? How do we stay in line with Christ? Of course, we could always fall back on the answers of reading the Bible regularly, and praying without ceasing. We could talk about maintaining fellowship with one another. Those answers are all good, and those activities are certainly part of staying aligned with Christ. But even more, I think, it requires intentionality on our part. We must desire to be in God’s will. We must make a conscious effort to line up with our cornerstone, Jesus Christ.

The parable of the wicked tenants shows us that God is persistent in seeking his people. God sent his own Son, who has been rejected by many. God will eventually reject those who reject his grace, but God will always seek those who are willing to live in right relationship with him. That relationship depends on our relationship with Jesus Christ. If we will align ourselves with Christ, the cornerstone, we will be in right relation to God the Father.

John Calvin said that we should expect people, especially religious leaders, to try to hinder the reign of Christ. But whatever obstacles are raised, God will be victorious. Christ will reign, “a cornerstone chosen and precious; and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.” Amen.

[1] Klyne Snodgrass, Stories with Intent: A Comprehensive Guide to the Parables of Jesus, 290.

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Authority and Obedience – Sermon on Matthew 21:23-32

It was the week we now call “Holy Week.” The palm branches from a couple of days before were still withering on the roadside. The money changers from yesterday’s uproar in the Temple were setting up their tables outside the courtyard, trying to be as inconspicuous as possible, in case that angry lunatic Jesus came back. Cleaning up the mess he left behind had taken hours, and they weren’t used to doing that much manual labor in one day! The withered fig tree was already on the compost pile, and Jesus was gathering his followers for another lesson about living in the Kingdom of God. He knew his time was short. Every word must count. The Temple was still the best place to teach his disciples, even though he knew the rulers and priests did not appreciate the lessons he offered. Since he’d been twelve years old, talking with the rabbis in this very place, his questions and ideas had disturbed the leaders of the Temple. He was a threat to them, and they were becoming a very real threat to him. But no other place would do, so Jesus led his disciples up from Bethany, straight to the Temple in Jerusalem.

When he entered the Temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching, and said, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” Jesus said to them, “I will also ask you one question; if you tell me the answer, then I will also tell you by what authority I do these things. Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” And they argued with one another, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say to us, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ But if we say, ‘Of human origin,’ we are afraid of the crowd; for all regard John as a prophet.” So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” And he said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.
“What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ He answered, ‘I will not’; but later he changed his mind and went. The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘I go, sir’; but he did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him. (Matthew 21:23-32)

Imagine the frustration those priests and elders must have felt! This Jesus was always catching them in their own words, making them look foolish in the eyes of the people. No matter how carefully they worded their questions, he always escaped their traps. No matter how much time they spent looking for an excuse to arrest him, he could slip through their fingers in an instant, with just a word or two. It was infuriating! And it was frightening. The leaders who had ruled the Jerusalem Temple for so long enjoyed their power. They liked the respect shown to them in the streets and the markets. They loved being the ones in authority. And here was this unschooled carpenter, teaching right under their noses, sounding like he knew God more intimately than any human possibly could. This Jesus could easily turn the people away from the Temple, away from the control of the high priests and the scribes. He taught with authority, but who had authorized him? Certainly not the Temple leaders! Just who did he think he was?

The issue of “authority” is a theme that runs throughout the Gospel of Matthew. Back in chapter 7, Jesus “astounds” the crowds who hear him teaching as one who has authority, not like the scribes they were used to hearing (7:29). In fact, the lesson Jesus was teaching back there in chapter seven was about bearing good fruit, doing the will of God instead of just giving it lip service. The lesson back there was very much like this one, at the end of Jesus’ ministry.

“Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves” Jesus says. “You will know them by their fruits. … A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. … “Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. … And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand.” (Matthew 7:15-26)

In chapter nine, Jesus tells a paralyzed man that his sins are forgiven –which makes the scribes a little uncomfortable. Jesus tells them,

“Why do you think evil in your hearts? For which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Stand up and walk’? But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—he then said to the paralytic—“Stand up, take your bed and go to your home.” And he stood up and went to his home. When the crowds saw it, they were filled with awe, and they glorified God, who had given such authority to human beings.” (Matthew 9:4-8)

Authority and obedience have been tied together since Jesus began his ministry, and Jesus will connect them again after his resurrection, when he gives his disciples the Great Commission, telling them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations…” (28:18-19).

Theologian David Lose reminds us that “there’s essentially one thing we need to keep in mind about authority: it’s given.” This is the difference between power – having the strength of will or muscle to accomplish something – and authority – being authorized to act by one who holds the actual power, the “author.” But sometimes, authority comes from a different direction. Instead of being handed down from above, it gets “handed up” from below, from people who submit themselves to another’s authority.
In either case, authority is given. True authority cannot be taken.

In Paul’s letter to the Philippians that we heard earlier, he quotes an early hymn of the church that describes Christ’s authority perfectly:

“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death — even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (Philippians 2:5-11)

Christ received his authority directly from God, and in obedience he humbled himself. Christ’s authority also comes from those who call him Lord, who seek to do his will.

Which brings us back to the parable Jesus uses to teach this lesson on authority. As he describes two sons, who are each given the same direction to go work in their father’s vineyard, the connection between authority and obedience becomes clear. One says he will go, and doesn’t, while the other refuses, but then changes his mind, and does what he was told to do. “Which did the will of his Father?” Jesus asks. The Temple leaders relax a bit. This isn’t a trick question, after all. The answer is obvious. The one who went to work, even after he said he would not.

Then Jesus looks at these priests and elders, and they suddenly know they’ve been had once again. I imagine the look Jesus gave them was a lot like the look King David got from the prophet Nathan, after he had sinned with Bathsheba. Do you remember the story Nathan told David? “What would you do to a man who had a whole flock of sheep, but took his poor neighbor’s only lamb to prepare a feast for a visitor?” “Of course, he must be punished,” David answers. “You are the man,” Nathan tells him. King David realizes he’s been caught. Just like King David, the Temple leaders now gathered around Jesus realize they are on the wrong side of the equation.

You see, they weren’t able to answer the question Jesus had asked them about John the Baptist’s authority. They got into an argument among themselves trying to come up with an answer that would appease the crowd and uphold their own honor, but that wasn’t possible. So they said, “we don’t know.” What they meant was, “We aren’t willing to commit. We don’t want to look bad in front of the people.” Then Jesus uses the parable to teach that appearances can be deceiving. It isn’t what we say, it’s what we do that shows our commitment to faith. It isn’t our lip service God wants; it’s our repentance. It isn’t our fancy words; it’s our obedience that matters to God. Knowing this puts us in the hot seat too: How do we respond to Christ’s authority?

It’s what we do, not just what we say, that matters. How often do we fail to commit, for fear of being ridiculed? Or maybe we just aren’t sure that Jesus is the Way the truth and the Life. We waffle, and instead of confessing that Jesus is Lord, we bear a different kind of testimony. By our silence, we tell the world that we aren’t so sure Jesus is worth committing our lives to. What are you doing – not just saying – to show you’re a follower of Jesus?

During my last semester of seminary, I had to write a mission statement for myself. It’s a couple years old now, but reading through it the other day made me realize that the time I put into crafting that mission statement was well spent. It helped me concentrate on what God is calling me to do and be, and it reminds me that, no matter how many “God words” I toss into my conversations with others, what really matters is what I do as a follower of Jesus Christ, to invite others into a life of following Jesus. Let me share part of it with you:

When I entered seminary, I had no “ministry goal.” I hated hearing the question, “What do you want to do with your degree?” For one thing I thought it arrogant to assume what I wanted had anything to do with responding to God’s call on my life. But I also hated being asked that question because I simply did not have an answer. My call came gradually over time, as I discovered gifts I didn’t know I had until I tried to use them. Even before those gifts began to fully develop, they were evidence to others – and finally to me – that God has a plan to use me in ministry.

So, this is what I know:
I am called to serve Christ and his Church as a pastor: preaching, teaching, making disciples and baptizing them into church fellowship, leading worship, and caring for the needs of a local congregation as it seeks to serve Christ and worship God. My goal as a pastor is to encourage mature faith among those under my care, teaching them to develop meaningful friendships with non-Christians for evangelism, to reach out in love to meet the needs of others in mission, and to grow in faith, as followers of Christ, through spiritual practices, especially the study of Scripture and prayer.

Through pastoral care, I seek to promote restoration and reconciliation among those who have suffered brokenness and pain. Through teaching and by example, I seek to encourage Christ-like living among those I serve, recognizing that it is not me, but Christ in me, who overcomes sin and reconciles us to God through Christ’s death on the cross and his resurrection from the grave. Through preaching and fellowship, I seek to share the Good News that we are saved by grace, through faith in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 2:8), and that God is not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance (1 Peter 3:9). Through the administration of the sacraments of baptism and communion, I seek to remind believers of Christ’s commands to his Church, and our connection to the great cloud of witnesses who participate with us in the Kingdom of God. Through the observance of Christian marriage and burial, I seek to remind both young and old of the covenant promises of God, and his steadfast love for each of us.

My mission, my calling, is to lead others to believe in Jesus Christ so that they may become devoted disciples of Jesus, growing in spiritual maturity and giftedness, and participating fully in Christ’s body, the church. I am called to make disciples of Jesus Christ.

So how about you? What is your personal ministry statement? What is God calling you toward? It may seem like I repeat that question often, but I’m going to keep asking it, because if we can’t articulate our mission as individuals, how can we say what God’s call is for our church? How can we reach new people who need the grace that Christ offers? How can we renew this congregation through deeper discipleship? How can we offer healing to the broken world around us?

Several weeks ago, you had an opportunity to discover your spiritual gifts. Some of you took advantage of that opportunity, and you may have discovered that the gifts God gave you for ministry, are things you already enjoy doing. This week, you will have an opportunity to commit to using those gifts in the coming year, as you develop them in service and discipleship. If you receive the Friday Five from First e-mail, you will find a special link in Friday’s message. Clicking on that link will take you to an online survey, where you can indicate the ways you might be willing to participate in our ministry here. Go ahead and check everything that interests you. Don’t be shy! This is not a commitment to do everything you mark on the form! It’s a way to tell us what interests you, where your giftedness lies, what you think God is calling you toward. Next Sunday, we will have a couple of laptops available after worship, so you can complete the survey right here at church if you want to. It only takes a few minutes. If you aren’t comfortable around computers, we can enlist some tech-savvy young person to enter your answers for you, or you can complete the old-fashioned pencil and paper version. The goal is to get as many of you as possible thinking about ways you can grow in your own faith, as a member of Christ’s body.

However we serve, it’s what we do, not just what we say, that counts. So, let us renew our own commitment to be faithful followers of Jesus, so that our witness draws the attention of people who need reaching. Let us renew our determination to grow in friendship with God, to make new friends with whom we can share a life of faith, and to heal the broken world that cries at our doorstep. Then let us rejoice, for the Kingdom of God is at hand. Amen.

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A Different Pay Scale – Sermon on Matthew 20:1-16

Have you ever been jealous? Have you ever watched as someone else received the recognition or reward that you expected to get? You had to smile and congratulate someone who you knew didn’t deserve this prize any more than you did, while inside you were wishing you’d been the one getting the pats on the back. Been there? Sometimes, life just isn’t fair. Sometimes we have to watch as someone else gets what we think we should be getting. And it’s no fun. Our human nature wants to see the pie divided evenly. We want everyone to be treated fairly, but we especially want to be treated more fairly than anyone else. And when we have to stand aside and watch someone else get the glory, or the money, or the nice house or the most popular prom date, it gives us pain. We get what the Greeks called the “evil eye” – that green-eyed monster, envy, ruins our joy.

Over the past couple of weeks, we’ve been learning from Jesus what it means to belong to the Kingdom of God. Following Jesus means confronting those who have wronged us, and it means forgiving over and over again, far beyond the expectations of reasonably polite behavior. This week, we get another lesson in Kingdom living, as we listen in on another conversation between Jesus and his disciples. Only this time, Jesus isn’t teaching us how to resolve problems we have with others in the Kingdom of God. This week, Jesus teaches us how to solve a problem every one of us must face at some point, a problem we have with ourselves.

Jesus is speaking:

“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, ‘Why are you standing here idle all day?’ They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard. ’When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.’ When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” (Matthew 20:1-16)

Many scholars consider the parable of the workers in the vineyard to be one of the most difficult parables to interpret. Like any parable, it’s hard to know what’s supposed to be symbolic, and what the symbols mean. Jesus loved to use everyday life as the basis for his stories, but there are several things in this parable that just don’t add up, and theologians have been arguing over these details since at least the third century.

For example, it doesn’t add up that the owner of the vineyard would be hiring his own workers, if he has a manager. That’s something the manager would do. And it doesn’t add up that the owner keeps coming back to the marketplace to hire more workers throughout the day. Any self-respecting vineyard owner would know how many workers he needed, and would hire them all at once first thing in the morning. And the most obvious thing that doesn’t add up is the way the workers get paid at the end of the day.

But Jesus is a master storyteller. He knows the way to set up the scene to grab his disciples’ attention. He knows how to build the suspense, and introduce the conflict that creates a good story. And he knows how to resolve that conflict so that his listeners never forget the moral of the story. And that ‘moral of the story’ is not what anyone expects it to be.

For this lesson to make sense, we need to know a little background. In last week’s story of the unforgiving servant, we learned that a denarius was considered a usual day’s wage in the first century. But it wasn’t a huge sum. It was barely enough to get by. That’s why the Torah insisted that laborers be paid at the end of each day they worked, because those who lived on a denarius a day struggled just above the poverty line. Some employers took advantage of day laborers, paying them as little as possible for extremely difficult and dangerous work. But this was not always the case.

The first century historian Josephus tells us that, following the completion of the Temple, 18,000 workers were unemployed. To meet their needs, and to make sure the Temple treasury was never so full of money that it would draw the attention of the Romans, it became customary for the Temple to “hire” workers to do minimal labor, while receiving a full day’s pay.[1] So, when Jesus sets up the conditions for his story, the number of laborers, and even the flat rate that was paid to all of them, are within the realm of possibility. We have a gracious landowner, who reminds us of a gracious God.

Then we get to the conflict of the parable. It just doesn’t make sense that the landowner who hired the workers would tell his manager to pay them in reverse order. There would have been no complaints from the first workers hired if they’d just taken their money and left, before the later workers received their pay. They would never have known how much the other workers got paid, and they wouldn’t have cared. They got what was promised to them, and that would have been good enough.

So, imagine their pleasant surprise when they see workers, who had barely been in the vineyard long enough to break a sweat, getting a full day’s pay. Imagine their delight as they realize this landowner has a generous spirit. They feel good about the work they’ve done, and they trust the landowner to be as generous with them as he has been with the latecomers to the vineyard. As they step up to the pay table, they are smiling and expectant, ready to say thanks for the landowner’s generosity, certainly ready to come back tomorrow for another day of labor! As they reach out to take what is rightfully theirs, they are already thinking of the food it will buy for their children, of the debts they can begin to pay off with what is left over. And the manager drops into their waiting hand … one denarius. A usual day’s pay. The same pay those lazy bums who only worked one hour got. It isn’t fair. It isn’t right. But they know the manager isn’t to blame – he’s just doing his job. They turn immediately to the landowner himself and demand to know what’s going on here!

“It’s my money and I’ll do what I want to with it” isn’t a very satisfying response. They were hoping for, “Oh, my mistake, of course you should be paid more.” Instead, they hear, “isn’t this the amount we agreed on this morning? Can’t I choose what to do with my own money?” And then the real stinger: “Are you jealous because I was generous with others?”

Some scholars think this parable is about salvation history, and the tension that existed between Jews and Gentiles in the early church. “Shouldn’t the Gentiles have to follow the Law, just as we have all these centuries, in order to be counted as children of God?” the Jewish Christians argued. “Why should they get the same reward as those of us who have lived under the Law since birth?”

Some scholars think it’s about salvation, teaching us that there is no difference, in the eyes of God, between faithful Christians who have lived a holy life since childhood and those who make a deathbed confession of faith. Other scholars have assigned different meanings to different elements of the story, and some arguments are convincing while others are not. Some have concentrated on the phrase that acts as a pair of bookends around this story: The first shall be last, and the last shall be first. They see this proverb as an explanation of the parable.

But what if it’s the other way around? What if the parable is just an example of the proverb, this saying that Jesus liked to repeat over and over again? What if this story describes exactly how the Kingdom of God is not what we expect, how God takes our human understanding of the way things work, and stands it on its head?

What if the moral of the story isn’t so much, “God is just and generous and can do whatever he wants,” but instead is a lesson in humility for the disciples of Jesus, who had a tendency to think more highly of themselves just because they got to hang out with the Son of God all the time? What if the point is that God uses a different pay scale than the one we would use if we were in charge? Gods pay scale isn’t based on our merit, but God’s great love for us. God’s pay scale gives us our daily bread, so that we will depend completely on him.

“Are you jealous because I was generous with these other workers?” the landowner asks. Jesus has taught us how to get along with each other, and now he is teaching us how to get along with ourselves when we begin to think we deserve more than we’re getting, when we start comparing ourselves to others, and when we wonder why they get all the blessings while we do all the work.

Envy is a particularly deadly sin. Even if it is never expressed, it eats away at us from the inside. It prevents us from noticing the many ways God blesses us, because we are always comparing our blessings to someone else’s, and that comparison creates resentment and anger inside us. Envy prevents us from living the abundant life Christ promises to us. And if we aren’t living an abundant life, we can’t possibly invite others to share in it. Instead of directing our full attention on God and his goodness, we become self-centered, bitter, and at odds with God’s intent for us.

Klyne Snodgrass writes, “Why is goodness often the occasion for anger? Why do we find it so difficult to rejoice over the good that enters other people’s lives, and why do we spend our time calculating how we have been cheated?”[2] We cannot experience the fullness of God’s love as long as we are comparing ourselves with others or being envious of what others receive.

Last week, Jesus told us to stop counting how many times we must forgive someone else. This week, he teaches us to stop counting someone else’s blessings, so that we can start living into our own blessings. God’s grace isn’t something you can earn or something you deserve because you’ve been working in the vineyard since the sun came up. God’s grace is freely given to all who believe that Jesus is the Son of God, who died to save us from our sins and rose so that we might have eternal life. Accepting this grace leaves no room for envy.

But envy is not limited to individuals. Whole churches have suffered from comparing their ministries to some other church that has more members, a bigger budget, a nicer building, better music, and a more dynamic preacher. Instead of concentrating on making disciples, congregations stuck in envy spend all their energy and resources trying to measure up to some other church’s standard of fruitfulness. They wonder why God hasn’t blessed their church the way God has blessed that other church. Sometimes, it isn’t another church, but “the way things used to be” that makes them jealous. They look at the denarius in their hand, and wonder why they didn’t get a bigger payback for all the work they did in the past. They become bitter, and they shake their heads as the church sinks further into decline.

But Christ calls us to make disciples, not comparisons. Instead of whining about what used to be or what some other church has, Christ calls us to work in his vineyard, for the harvest is plentiful, and the laborers are few.[3]

The Minnesota Conference of the United Methodist Church is embarking on a new initiative to reach new people for Christ, renew existing congregations, and rejoice in God’s generous goodness to us. Reach – Renew – Rejoice could be just another program, another way to institutionalize the process of making and deepening disciples. Or it could be an opportunity to revitalize our mission, refocus our energy, and see what God might do among us if we are faithful in pursuing God’s will for our congregation. Instead of comparing ourselves to others, God calls us to put down the measuring stick altogether, and do what we are gifted and called to do as workers in God’s kingdom. So let’s roll up our sleeves and head into the vineyard. We have been called to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. Let’s get to work. Amen.

[1] Klyne Snodgrass, Stories with Intent: A Comprehensive Guide to the Parables of Jesus, 364.

[2] Snodgrass, 378.

[3] Matthew 9:38, Luke 10:2

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Reaching Through Forgiveness – Sermon on Matthew 18:21-35

I don’t think any of us come to worship God in this place with the idea of becoming less like Jesus as our goal. We’re all in it to become more like Jesus. Sometimes, it’s hard, though, isn’t it? Sometimes we’d like Jesus to let us off the hook a little bit, tell us what we are doing is good enough, pat us on the head and let us get on with being a little less like him. Right?

But it never seems to work that way. Jesus always calls us gently toward greater perfection. Christ sets the barre high for us, as his followers. Jesus doesn’t let us off the hook, because we’re all he’s got. Christ depends on us, as he reaches into this troubled, broken world of ours, to show people what it means to follow him into the Kingdom of God. We matter. And what we do, how we treat one another, matters. How else will people who are in pain, who need God, see the difference that following Christ can make in their lives? How else will they know that they matter to God?

In today’s passage, we pick up the conversation between Jesus and his disciples from the point where we left off last week. Jesus has been teaching us how to live in the Kingdom of God, and he has urged us to be reconciled to those who have wronged us. Last week, we learned a process for resolving conflict between two believers, and in the UMC we call that process the Rule of Christ. It outlines a series of steps for confronting a brother or sister in disagreement. We must first examine our own contribution to the problem, then go directly to the one who has hurt us and tell that person what is wrong. If they don’t listen, or won’t be reconciled to us, then we must bring in another believer to act as mediator or advocate, and if the other party still will not listen, we are to call upon the resources of the whole church. Once we’ve tried everything, and there is still no resolution, we are to treat the other person as a Gentile and a tax collector – in other words, as an outsider. While many traditions interpret this to mean we are to exclude, or shun, the person, a look at the way Jesus himself treated Gentiles and tax collectors may indicate that what we are really supposed to do is work even more diligently at finding ways to live in community with the offender, offering the same invitation to discipleship that we would offer any other outsider we would win to Christ.

The “three strikes and you’re out” that Jesus gives – go directly to the offender, then take one or two witnesses, then take it to the church, if all else fails, treat the offender as an outsider – line up nicely with the common practice of first century Jews. It was understood that three pardons were enough – a fourth offense did not need to be forgiven. If I forgave you three times, and you wronged me again, I could hold a grudge and still claim to be righteous.

As the disciples listened to Jesus teach about conflict resolution, they may have interpreted his words in this way. But Peter knew better. He knew that with Jesus, it was never that simple. With Jesus, the old order of things was never good enough. So, to clarify things, he asked a question, hoping that – for once – he had guessed the right answer in advance.

Hear the word of the Lord as given to us in the gospel of Matthew, chapter 18, verses 21-35:

Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.

“For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, ‘Pay what you owe.’ Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt. When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

Peter thought that surely , if the standard was forgiving up to three times, seven ought to be more than enough to satisfy Jesus. Seven was a perfect number, after all. When Jesus says, “Not seven. Seventy-seven” or maybe even “seventy times seven,” depending on how you read it, he’s asking Peter to go deeper in his understanding of forgiveness. And Jesus invites us to go deeper, too.

You see, the issue isn’t a number at all. And Jesus makes this clear in the parable he tells to explain his point. Here we have a king and his slave. The slave owes the king an enormous amount of money. It’s possible he became a slave in order to pay off a debt he owed to someone else. We don’t know, and how he came to be a slave, or came to owe the king so much money doesn’t really matter in this story. The important thing is that this debt is so huge, he will never be able to pay it. A talent was equal to about 130 pounds of silver, or about 15 years of wages for a laborer. At 10,000 times that amount, it would take the slave 150,000 years of work to pay off the debt. Impossible.

Yet, when the slave begged for more time, the king had pity on him, and not only withdrew the sentence, but actually forgave the entire fortune the slave owed. The king showed mercy.

But what does the slave do after receiving such generosity from his master? On his way out of the king’s presence, he runs into a fellow slave who owes him the equivalent of 100 days of wages. Not 150,000 years, but 100 days. A manageable sum. A realistic debt. You would think that the first slave would be feeling generous, having just received a very sweet deal from his master, but instead, he grabs his fellow slave by the throat and demands payment. The second slave falls into the very same posture of humility, and uses the very same words the first slave used to beg for a little more time. But this time there is no mercy. There is no pity. There is no generosity.

And the other slaves see how wrong this is. Even without benefit of Facebook or Twitter, the word gets back to the king that this slave he forgave will not forgive. The king is furious, and rightly so. Not only is this behavior wrong, it reflects badly on the king for one of his own slaves to behave so badly. It makes the king appear weak when he shows mercy to a scoundrel who apparently doesn’t get the concept of ‘paying it forward.’

So the king rescinds the original pardon, and the first slave suffers the consequences of his own lack of mercy to another. If he won’t forgive another, the king won’t forgive him.

I wonder why that slave would not show mercy, don’t you? Maybe he was just greedy. Now that his own debt was gone, any money he could force out of another would be free and clear cash in hand – he didn’t have to ‘borrow from Peter to pay Paul anymore.’ Or maybe he was so used to a cycle of violence and coercion that threatening the other slave was just force of habit for him. Whatever the reason, the slave who had been forgiven had not been transformed by the grace shown to him. The change in his circumstances did not bring about a change in his behavior, or his outlook on life. He suffered the consequences of his actions, and was thrown into prison.

And Jesus says, “This is what will happen to you if you don’t forgive from your heart.”

It isn’t the numbers that matter; it’s what we hold in our hearts that really counts. Seven or seventy-seven or seven times seventy doesn’t matter. 150,000 years of wages or 100 days of wages doesn’t matter. What matters is the stuff that goes on in the depths of our hearts. If we accept the forgiveness that God offers us through his Son’s death and resurrection, we become new people. We are changed. And if we are changed, our behavior changes. The way we look at life changes. The way we treat other people changes. Our capacity to forgive others changes. There is no room for holding grudges in a heart that has been touched by God’s unmerited favor.

This does not mean that we should allow others to abuse us or take advantage of us. Theologian David Lose writes, If someone is repeatedly unkind or hurtful, let alone mean-spirited or violent, we may very well want to put some distance between us. But even that decision doesn’t completely define … our … relationship with the other person, only how we conduct that relationship. We may continue to love a child or sibling or friend who is abusive, but we don’t have to put up with the abusive behavior. Indeed, the most loving and forgiving thing to do may very well be to stop putting up with the behavior.”

Remember that this passage belongs to the one we heard last week about confronting one who has wronged us. Confrontation without forgiveness only serves to make a conflict worse, but confrontation is necessary in order for forgiveness to bring reconciliation and healing.

The point of Jesus’ parable isn’t to get us to increase our forgiveness quota. It’s to get us to stop counting altogether. Because forgiveness is part of love, and love can’t be counted. If Peter had asked Jesus “How many times should I love my neighbor?” we would think the question ridiculous. Love can’t be counted. Neither can forgiveness, because forgiveness is really a decision to accept what you can’t change in the past, so that the past no longer has power over you. When you cannot forgive, the past puts you in prison. Forgiveness is the freedom to let go of the past, and walk into the future.

And isn’t that good news? Isn’t it worth sharing the good news that forgiveness, like God’s love, is without limits? The only thing God can’t forgive is an unwillingness to be forgiven, and it isn’t because God refuses to offer forgiveness, but because we have to be willing to accept the offer for it to go into effect. And when we accept Christ’s offer of forgiveness, it changes us into people who offer forgiveness to others. Just like those servants who ratted out the ungrateful slave, others will spread the word, but this time, the news will be that we care, that we aren’t here to judge others, but to share God’s saving love with them. Instead of tattling on our wrongs, people will be talking about how forgiveness is so much a part of our DNA, it has changed our lives.

That’s how we reach others for Christ. We respond to God’s grace by offering grace. We answer God’s forgiveness by forgiving the people who have wronged us. And the word gets around.

Christ sets the barre high for us, as his followers. Jesus doesn’t let us off the hook, because we’re all he’s got. Christ depends on us, as he reaches into this troubled, broken world of ours, to show people what it means to follow him into the Kingdom of God. We matter. And what we do, how we treat one another, matters. How else will people who are in pain, who need God, see the difference that following Christ can make in their lives? How else will they know that they matter to God?

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The Rule of Christ – Sermon on Matthew 18:15-20

When our son was studying the cello, he had a great teacher. Mr. Howard taught his students more than good playing technique. He also taught them skills that could transfer from music to other areas of life. So when our son struggled with a difficult passage, Mr. Howard taught him a problem solving process for “learning the hard parts” of a piece that could work in non-music situations, too. The process had four steps. The first two concentrated on the problem itself, and the last two focused on the solution. Albert Einstein once said something about being given an hour to solve a problem, he would spend 55 minutes on the problem, and five minutes on the solution, but Mr. Howard’s method was not limited by time. Here are the steps:

  1. Identify the problem
  2. Isolate it
  3. Innovate possible solutions
  4. Implement a solution

If the solution doesn’t work, go back to the beginning and start over. Identify, Isolate, Innovate, and Implement. It was a great way to help a young music student concentrate on the few notes or measures that needed fixing, and our son still remembers the four steps of the process, nearly a decade after his lessons with Mr. Howard have ended. No doubt, he still uses these four steps on a regular basis.

But problem-solving strategies don’t always work when the problem at hand is really a conflict between two people. When those two people are both followers of Jesus, resolving the conflict between them has to reflect that they are children of God, who live together as members of the body of Christ.

Today’s reading from the gospel of Matthew is part of a larger teaching on how to live in the Kingdom of God. In this passage, Jesus teaches us how to resolve conflicts so we can live together in peace. In the United Methodist Church we call this process the Rule of Christ, and our Staff/Pastor Relations Committee is formulating a guide to help us follow the Rule of Christ here in our own congregation. The Rule of Christ reminds us that we do not do this thing called ministry alone. We are in community together, and because we are all sinners, it means we are going to bump up against each other from time to time. We are going to disagree with one another from time to time. We are going to hurt each other occasionally. When that happens, Jesus gives us a means for getting reconnected, for making peace, for becoming whole again.

Hear the Word of the Lord, as given to us in the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 18, verses 15-20.
“If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one.But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.
Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”

In the first few verses, Jesus gives us a process for working out our differences that seems to be as simple as Mr. Howard’s problem solving method. While the four steps of the Rule of Christ don’t exactly line up with Identify, Isolate, Innovate, and Implement, they come pretty close. But the process itself is a little different. Instead of discreet steps, the Rule of Christ follows a progression that begins small, and grows larger only if it needs to:

  1. Start by addressing the one who has hurt you face-to-face. Whenever someone wrongs you, go immediately to them and tell them what is bothering you.
  2. If that doesn’t work, bring along a witness who can also act as mediator or advocate.
  3. If that doesn’t work, call on the resources of the larger church.
  4. If you still can’t convince the other person to repent, “let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” This sounds like one of those sayings that must have been its own catch phrase in first century Palestine, doesn’t it? We’ll come back to that in a moment.

Before we can even go to the one who has hurt us, though, Christ encourages us to do a little soul-searching, to recognize our own part in the conflict. Earlier in chapter 18, Jesus tells us to cut off any part of our own bodies that cause us to sin. To do that, we have to recognize our own sinfulness. So before we can address sin in another, Jesus calls us to look at ourselves. Answering a few questions can help us gain clearer understanding, avoid overreacting, and move us toward wholeness.

The first question we should ask ourselves is, “Can I let it go?” If the offense is minor, and you can honestly let it go, there is no reason to confront the other person. There is no reason to create conflict where it doesn’t already exist outside our own minds. But if you know this is going to keep bothering you, it’s time to ask another question: “What might the other person think I have contributed to this problem?” Taking the time to see things from the other person’s viewpoint can help us recognize what we need to take responsibility for, before we confront another. And asking, “what does God see?” can give us an even broader perspective. This broader view helps us see the issue more objectively, and prevents us from allowing anger and fear to cloud our vision as we work toward resolution. We may discover that the problem we have is really within ourselves, and we can avoid causing distress in others and in the church through our own repentance and discipleship.

But sometimes, that self-examination shows me that I really have been hurt by another, and allowing that wound to fester will not lead to healing. Then I must get up and go to the one who has hurt me, and tell that person what is wrong. The purpose of this step is not to get even or express my anger. The purpose here is to resolve the conflict. As I work to understand the other person’s point of view, the goal is for us to work together to come up with solutions.

Sometimes, two people simply cannot agree, and when that is the case, Jesus urges us to bring in some help. An advocate or witness can offer yet another viewpoint, and may be able to point out possibilities that the two parties in conflict might not have been able to see. This could be church staff, or the SPRC, if the conflict is with a member of the church staff, or someone from the Church Board. If that doesn’t work, it’s time to draw on the larger church. The conference offers resources for conflict resolution, and the district superintendent can also be a resource. But if we’ve followed the Rule of Christ with integrity, no church conflict should ever come to this “last resort” stage. Jesus encourages us to solve the problem as simply and directly as possible, before it becomes a full-blown crisis of the church.

Here’s something to ponder: that word “church” only appears twice in all the gospels, and both of them happen in Matthew. Jesus also uses the word “church” in chapter 16, when he gives Simon the name “Peter.” Both of these passages that include the word “church” also promise that what is bound on earth will be bound in heaven, and what is loosed on earth will be loosed in heaven.

Jesus emphasizes that what we say and do here on earth is connected to what happens in heaven. Resolution and agreement reflect a heavenly ideal of the “unity” in “community,” and Christ promises to be with us as we seek to resolve our conflicts with one another. Christ is present among us as we work out what it means to live in the Kingdom of God, loving one another in Christ’s name, seeking each other’s good, showing the world what it means to live in peace.

Jesus isn’t saying that we have power to dictate what will be acceptable in heaven by what we choose here on earth, any more than he is saying that we can ask for any whim to be satisfied, and simply tack on the words “in Jesus’ name” to get what we want. Jesus says simply that he will be present in the process of seeking reconciliation, and God will honor the solution reached by two parties who actively seek God’s will. We do not do this hard work of building community by ourselves, but through the power of the Holy Spirit.

But what happens when nothing works?

Even when we follow the Rule of Christ to the letter, some issues simply cannot be resolved. In those cases, it’s best to remember our mission, let go of disappointment and anger, and move on with our ministry. We all have known churches that have been split apart by grievances that could not be resolved. When those unresolved issues become the center of a church’s attention, the wound never heals, and the church gets stuck. Even worse, when a church allows conflict to take God’s rightful place as its center of attention, conflict becomes what the church worships, instead of God. Christ’s words may seem harsh, but treating someone who will not be reconciled as “a Gentile and a tax collector” may be the only way the church itself can survive the aftermath of such a crisis.

Here we are, back at that “Gentile and a tax collector” phrase I mentioned earlier. While his disciples may have heard this as a standard expression for excluding an outcast, Christ’s practice was to include both Gentiles and tax collectors among his followers. Matthew himself was a tax collector, after all! Think about the way Jesus treated the Samaritan woman at the well, or Zacchaeus. He made himself available to all, and spent a good deal of his time and energy welcoming outcasts. When we cannot reconcile with another believer, Jesus encourages us to treat that person as an outcast, but I don’t think he’s asking us to shun those who won’t agree with us. I think he’s asking us to spend even more energy on drawing them into God’s love and forgiveness, entering into intentional community with them, engaging them in ongoing discipleship.

Because the bottom line is this: God really cares about how we treat each other, and how others treat us. God wants us to live in Kingdom harmony with one another, so that others may be drawn into this abundant life by our example. It isn’t always easy to turn God’s flashlight into our own souls to see where we might need to do a little repenting before we accuse another of sin. And it certainly isn’t easy to get up and go directly to the people who have wronged us, to speak to them face-to-face. It’s even harder to admit we can’t accomplish reconciliation on our own, and we might need some help from a broader circle of witnesses in the church. Hardest of all is admitting that, on rare occasions, reconciliation simply isn’t possible, and we have to redirect our energy back toward the work of ministry we’ve been called as a church to do.

As we ponder these words of Jesus that seem so harsh, we might wonder where forgiveness comes into the picture. Will the conflicts we must inevitably face always lead to division? Does every unresolved conflict have to end in separation, and must that separation be permanent? Come back next week, when we’ll hear more from Jesus about living in the Kingdom of God.

 

having fun at FUMC

What’s Your Superpower? – Children’s Message on Romans 12:1-8

What do you think your superpower is? Everybody has one, but sometimes we forget to use the one we’re given! Do you know someone who does a really good job of teaching you things? They know how to keep it interesting, and they answer your questions – sometimes before you even ask! They just seem to know how to make learning fun and you can remember what they teach you? That person has a gift of teaching.

Do you know someone who is really good at encouraging you? No matter how bad you feel about yourself, this person can always help you see what’s good in you, and how God is working in your life. They help you cheer up when you are discouraged, and they always make you want to try harder. That person is an encourager; it’s their superpower.

Or maybe you know someone who is really kind. They are always doing nice things for other people, and they never seem to get mad or angry – that person’s superpower is kindness.

So what’s your superpower? You may not know it, but you are already developing a special gift that has been given to you by the Holy Spirit. This week, I’d like you to pay attention to the way God might be using you, and see if you can figure out what your superpower is. You can ask God to show it to you, and then be on the lookout for things you find yourself doing that might be God working through you. The church needs all kinds of people with all kinds of gifts, especially you and the superpowers you have! Let’s pray…

God, help us to notice when you are working in us and through us to show love to other people. Help us pay attention to the superpowers you have given us through the Holy Spirit, and help us to use our powers for good, so others will come to know you. Amen.