This gospel reading is definitely not my favorite bible passage! The whole dialog about “my Lord said to your Lord,” is so obscure we are quickly left in the dust, and tune out. “Whose son is he?” is just not our question, anymore than we would think to judge our kids’ friends, by their parents!
“What does Jesus, the Messiah, stand for?” might be a better way of asking the question today. Like the once popular, WWJD, it’s a moral question. And as questioning and baptized believers in Christ, “What does Jesus stand for?” is a basic marker (question) we revisit often, consciously or unconsciously!
That said, I can now appreciate this odd and obscure gospel passage a bit better. I used to just ignore this sticky wicket in preaching, but actually, I think I’m beginning to see how they go together.
The Pharisees, who’ve been hanging around the edges in Jesus’ final days until now, watching and waiting to see if the Sadducees, the high priests and leaders of the people, could entrap Jesus, now see they will finally have to enter the fray, and give him the legal conundrum every Grad student trips on. After all, out of more than 700 laws in the book of Leviticus, who’s to say what the greatest commandment is? But Jesus, ‘clever like a fox,’ chooses the most common verse of all, the Shema, everyone’s morning and evening prayer, which had become an oath, a statement of citizenship, and a creed: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind (might).” But a second command is its equal, Jesus quickly adds. And now he chooses from our 1st reading in Leviticus today: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
Threading these 2 passages together wove a seamless tale, and important moral guide, that was impossible to deny. These were utterly familiar passages on their own, but cut and pasted together, they were able to capture, not just the greatest command or Law, but the whole of scripture. Together they cemented the identity, and moral reach, of a chosen, called and committed people.
But Jesus ads yet one more thing, the 3rd leg of the stool, if you will – the question of the Messiah, and the one who’s standing in front of them! The leaders in Jerusalem, of course, don’t believe “anything good can come from Nazareth,” and no matter how popular Jesus is, no matter how smart he is in answering their questions, no matter how compassionate he is in showing mercy, they will never believe he is the Messiah, for their interests do not line up. Jesus uses Psalm 110 to point out a contradiction, and trip them up. If David, the writer of the Psalm, quotes God calling David’s son Lord, how can he be the Messiah? Only if “the Son of David” – who they admitted was the Messiah – is also the Son of God! But the Pharisees refused to go there! It would be a proof that Jesus was right, that he indeed was the Messiah, and, the Son of God. Okay, admittedly, that’s still pretty obscure!
But the point is simply that “loving God, and loving neighbor” is a morality that is grounded in Jesus, the Son of God. In Jesus’ speaking, and in his person, a unified understanding of how to believe and act in the world, suddenly made sense, and we have a marker, a compass, to lead us.
Jesus’ world was crumbling. The Temple, holy city and its establishment was losing legitimacy, day by day, year by year. Its foundation was built on low moral ground, the Herod family. Like a bank to big to fail, it blocked the way of reform even as it claimed special sovereign status. As spectacular as Herod’s Second Temple looked - and it was beautiful - its leaders were too compromised, and clung too rigidly to the letter of the law. Power was consolidated in the 1%, while the 99, the regular working folk, tradesmen and artist(ans), homemakers and homeless, had been pushed aside. There was no place for them to sit at the table, until Jesus, as the third leg of the stool, offered it to them. Washing their feet as an example of his new Commandment, and, in love, offering all of himself on the cross, was a stumbling block for the leaders of Jerusalem, but the beginning of a new temple for them, and a way to reach out, empowered now, to change the world.
What is crumbling in our time that needs a moral fix? What do you think of the Messiah? Could he be the third leg of the stool for the times we live in today? And, what is the greatest commandment for us?
It’s hard to beat Jesus’ prescription for the greatest law: Love God with your whole being, and your neighbor as yourself. We can still get behind that, and believe it, lift it up in prayer and praise, and act it out in compassion and in service to our neighbors. With this moral, and religious, prescription, we can address the crumbling socio-political corruption of our time.
Today, in the Occupy Wall Street movement, for example, they seem to be gaining authenticity from a broad representation, and a deep moral critique. “Too big to fail,” is not a future to build on. The corruption of checks and balances wounds society, and leaves it limping, like the missing third leg of our moral stool. Wall Street – set free from any significant regulation, to profit at the expense of the 99%’ – is symbolic of our moral malaise, if not the actual center of the crisis. And so, there’s plenty of crumbling going on that calls for a moral re-evaluation. We are called, by our faith, to show the compassion and willingness to change, the world so desperately needs.
“What does Jesus, the Messiah, stand for?” Jesus came to stand up for all people in the midst of the crisis of his day, which is the same moral crisis of every day. In dying and rising again, he founded more than just a social movement, of course – he lives, and continues to send the enlivening Spirit, for the transformation of all lives, and for the renewal of “the spirit of the Law” that lives in, and for us, in every age: for grace and forgiveness, for love and justice, for the inclusion of all. He is the third leg of the stool, our seat at the banqueting table of the Lord - where our Messiah and Savior, has set us free, to be a holy presence for others.
“In God we Trust.” As I squirreled my money away in a handful of white wove envelopes as a boy, I couldn’t help but notice our nation’s motto imprinted on every bill and coin. It was a crazy system! I mean the envelope savings system, but maybe also the motto draped rather dogmatically above Lincoln and Washington’s heads. Why was it there? Which God is it that everyone is supposed to trust in? A Lutheran or a Catholic god? A Jewish, Muslim or Hindu god? Even then I wondered, why would I trust the government to tell me what I believe about God? And I didn’t much go in for the secret Masonic eye in the pyramid thing either!
Ironically, we’re not the only country that adopted the motto, “In God we trust.” As it turns out, it’s also the motto of our neighbor to the south, Nicaragua. Which makes me wonder if the men and women of faith in the White House in the 1980’s who approved the illegal torture and killing of innocent Nicaraguans in the Iran-Contra affair, ever felt a contradiction there? What does it mean to trust in God? What does it mean to have that motto on your currency? I don’t know for sure? What do you think? Really! I’m interested in your thoughts, and I invite you to write them down on the Stewardship paper provided in your worship folder today. “What do you think Jesus means? What things are the emperor's and what are God's?”
Anyway, my family’s envelope system goes back to when I had my first lawn mowing and snow shoveling jobs, and my parents shared their elaborate system of saving money with me. All my brothers and my sister got the same lesson sooner or later, to get in the habit of saving some of your paycheck for the future, whether it’s for college or for clothes, for church or for something you want for yourself. I remember I wanted a mini-bike! The point was, you simply write the name of the fund you’re saving for on the envelope, and decide how much you’re going to put in there each time you get paid, and stick to it. It was pretty primitive, but it was easy, and it worked! And later I realized what a transformative lesson it was. Not only did I have some nice clothes for school and church, I also got that mini-bike, and had a good chunk of change for tuition. Debt would never be a serious problem for me.
Such proprietary lessons were essential in preparing to enter the world of 20C middle-class living. But for those who lived in Palestine and listened to Jesus’ parables, even that level of savings was not possible. Money was not a broad based standard available to the 99%, the subsistence living crowds Jesus so often cared for. There were no checking accounts, much less ATM machines or online banking options. The amount of coins in circulation with the emperor’s image on them, were minted simply to expedite the system of collecting taxes and creating debt. A farmer or carpenter would rather have bread in hand, than coins. It was no spiritualized abstraction to, pray for ones “daily bread.” Money, whether bronze or silver coins, occasionally gold, was just another way for the 1% to “lord it over,” the 99.
But in the dawning of the kingdom and realm of God in Jesus, a different economy, built on trust in God, had emerged. The economy of Rome was the prevailing option, which the Pharisees and the Herodians in Jerusalem, had been co-opted into, and, more and more, benefited from. An economy of debt and excessive taxes, of owing the elite for your land or your business, were the price paid to feed the family. You could imitate them and join the rat race, the system of indebting others to you, so that in pushing them down, you could rise up a bit, trust that you would not be one of the newest victims needed to fuel the economy. Or you could entertain the option Jesus revealed, a new kind of trust. Serve God, not Mammon! In the economy of the realm of God, trust was shared between the faithful, and within the ekklesia or church, a trust that first came from God, based on a deeply held belief that God was the creator of heaven and earth.
It’s still an ideal we attain to, continue to seek, and make a reality. But trust is key. It’s complicated in the 21C, with a world-wide economy! We live in the empire, even as we negotiate our faith in the creator of everything. We pay our taxes and do business with money saying, “In God we Trust.” I don’t know. What do you think? Write it down and we can discuss it at the Stewardship meeting.
No one can really say just what Jesus meant when he so skillfully got himself out of the trap that the Pharisees set for him, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” Does that mean we’re supposed to give all our coins away to the rulers of this world, and, give all our lives, our allegiance to God? Is giving the emperor the things that are his, the taxes? How does it work? I really don’t know for sure. What do you think?
At the Occupy Wall Street protests, a popular sign said, “Keep the Coins, I want Change!” A clever double-meaning! Maybe a modern translation of Jesus’ reply? We do know that, in Jesus day, no one even expected to receive services for payment of taxes. They were levied largely to keep order, at the expense of freedom and creativity for the 99%.
It wasn’t just “the love of money” that corrupted those at the top of the system in Jesus’, or any other day since then, but the lack of faithful and secure grounding in God, and the misunderstanding of whose “image” we’re made in. It takes a deep and sincere trust that we are created, not just symbolically, but unequivocally and marvelously, in the image of God, the only trust bold enough to “walk through the valleys of the shadow of death,” we must face. Which opens us up to accept the invitation to this table, and trust, that this bread and wine are Jesus body and blood for us, the beginning of a path of unimaginable joy, and way to transformation for the world. “Keep the Coins, I want Change.”
These times are full of uncertainty, and to trust in God will require a new and deep trust in one another, an openness to the realm of transformation. We hold on to our faith in a loving God, a truth that does not change, but we also must answer the call to deeper faith, to a more bodily and incarnate kingdom and realm of God, that always pulls us into that loving grace anew.
What does it mean to trust in God? What do you think? What things are Caesar's and what are God's? How does our faith shape our economic decisions?" "What one question about the relationship between faith and money would you most like to talk about at church?" Write down your thoughts. Put them in the offering plate or give them to me. We’re in this together!
A Lutheran is one of the winners of the Nobel Peace Prize for 2011! Leymah Gbowee has no political pedigree, unlike her co-winner, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the President of her West African country, Liberia. Gbowee is a mother of 6, who followed a dream she had one night, to gather the women of the churches to pray for peace. It happened at one of the most terrible times for her country, when the brutal dictator, Charles Taylor ruled a decade ago. "We sat down there every day under the rain and sun,'' said (Bernice Williams,) one of Gbowee's colleagues from the Women in Peace Network. ''We sat here together. [And] Today she has won this prize, and it is not Leymah alone, but it is all the Liberian women who suffered for it,'' she said. ''These women endured the unimaginable. Some of them were raped, their husbands were killed. Their entire families were murdered.''
Gbowee grew up in central Liberia, and left for the capital when she was 17, just before the war started, to train as a trauma counselor. And her work began with ex-child soldiers who had fought for Charles Taylor. Just a few years later she became the spokesperson for the women's group and led the protest for peace. She “gathered all whom she found,” both Christians and Muslims, believing that: "If any changes were to be made in society- it had to be by the mothers.
"I started to cry and to pray,” Gbowee said. “The women kept coming. Market women. Displaced women from the camps. Some of them had been walking for hours.” Her key moment came in April of 2003 when a huge crowd of women went before then-President Charles Taylor, and she was the one to hand him a resolution for peace, saying, ‘The women of Liberia, …we are tired of war. We are tired of running. We are tired of begging for bulgur wheat. We are tired of our children being [brutally mistreated].” She hadn’t been invited, she came from the most vulnerable and lowest rung in their society, but her prayers were answered.
An amazing accomplishment, along with President Ellen Johnson, she was instrumental in ending the civil war, and bringing Taylor to justice. And, it must have been quite a celebration that summer in 2003! And now she is celebrating her peace prize, to the delight of many.
This past summer’s celebration that everyone was tuned into was, the royal wedding of William and Kate from Britain, a spectacle everyone wanted to participate in. Wedding banquet’s are always times for celebration, and no expense was spared to wed the Queen’s grand-son, who is 2nd in line to succeed her. Celebrities from here and everywhere arrived, presidents and prime ministers came. It was an extravagant and picture perfect affair.
And that’s just what was expected, we can imagine, of the wedding banquet that a king threw for his son, in our gospel parable. But, it all went wrong in a hurry! The king sent out invitations well ahead of time, as was the custom, and then as the day came, sent out his servants to announce the affair once again. “But now they refused to come! [Not giving up, he sends other servants out, insisting, come on, this party’s going to be nuts! You don’t want to miss it! But they laugh at the invitation, and go back to work, while others mock and kill the messengers.]
So, the vindictive king retaliates, sending his own personal troops, not only to kill them, but to burn their city to the ground. Much as we might expect from today’s leaders, like Charles Taylor in Gbowee’s Liberia, or like President Assad of Syria, whose security forces once again, just yesterday, fired shots this time into a crowd of innocent mourners at a funeral, killing at least two. Methods of terror and intimidation are all too pervasive throughout the history of kings and presidents.
But in the parable, the wedding banquet took a more positive turn when the king, however briefly, showed his benevolent side, ordering his servants to go out into the marketplace and invite anyone and everyone they could find, “both good and bad.” Now that his rich friends, who rejected him were eliminated, he’d take any old warm body to fill his wedding hall, even those he considered undesirable! And so they came into the palace, a bit wearily, but hungry enough to take a chance on this fickle and capricious king.
What I started to wonder at this point was, where was the king’s son in this story? The most obvious thing about the son, is his invisibility! Normally in this parable, we would interpret the son as Jesus, and the king as God. But here we have a king that looks a lot like the real king of Jesus’ day, King Herod, who had the ‘well deserved’ reputation among the Palestinian Jews, of a brutal despot, and capricious ruler.
So the Jesus character in the parable, it turns out, may actually be the one who was next in line for the king’s retaliation at the royal wedding. “Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe,” the king said to him out of the blue. And, he had him thrown into the outer darkness. Just like Jesus, the innocent man stood silent before his accusers. Jesus tells this story as holy week begins, and shortly, on that Thursday evening after he is arrested, and as he stood trial, Jesus receives the false accusations without answering, “speechless,” and then he is thrown into the outer darkness of death, just like the condemned robe-less man in the parable.
The retaliation of the king will be transformed by Jesus, of course, in his death and resurrection, he will become our new king, teaching us a new way, by breathing peace, into the whole Body of Christ.
Who are those in our society and neighborhood that are considered undesirable, that don’t get the first invitation to weddings? Who are those that are willing to pray and gather up those affected by capricious and dirty leaders? Who are those that have been as a Christ to you, and showed you the way to transformation in your life? Today we think of Leymah Gbowee. Amidst the story of Charles Taylor, armed rebels and a quarter million Liberians killed, her story was silenced until now. Yet, thanks to the Nobel Peace Prize, we have heard the key roll she played in freeing her people non-violently, by their perseverance, prayer and faith. She did not have the proper wedding robe or credentials to do it, no one had invited her. But concerned for the women and children of her country, she followed her dream, and, her time of celebration has come.
Which reminds me, there’s another thing I need to tell you about the Nobel Peace Prize winner. I got an email from Anne Basye yesterday. She just had to share the news with me! This fellow Lutheran, Leymah Gbowee, was her house guest back in 2005 when Anne lived here on Balmoral, just down by Glenwood. And on Sunday, naturally, she brought her to church! Leymah was invited to speak here from this ambo, and gave a brief greeting to those assembled – maybe some still remember?! But Anne wanted us to remember: that the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, Leymah Gbowee, sat right here in the same pews that we do!
We too are called! The feast has been prepared. Come, we have much to give thanks for, and celebrate! Taste and see that the Lord is good.
What does Christian stewardship mean in this rent-to-own world? What is Jesus trying to tell us about the vineyard in this third Vineyard parable in as many weeks? Is it okay to return violence for violence on those who have misused their trust to care for the Vineyard?
This is one of those passages where it helps to look between the lines, and to apply the Lutheran principle we call, scripture interpreting scripture.
There may be some here who memorized that core statement from John’s Gospel, “For God so loved the world that God sent his only begotten son…” If so, your ears may have perked up hearing the same thing in this parable about the landowner who, “sent his son to them,” to the tenants, to collect the produce. The landowner, frustrated by the treatment his servants have received from his tenants, thinks, or hopes at least, that “they will respect my son.” Jesus is making an analogy about himself, of course, just as John’s gospel was talking about God sending Jesus into the world to save it by going to the cross. “The scriptures, both Hebrew and Christian, Old and New Testaments, provide one witness after another that God’s mission to save the world will not be derailed by human wickedness, doubt or failure. The realm or kingdom of God is not built on human institutions or promises, but is built and planted in God’s grace-filled will to make it happen.
The servants in the parable that God kept sending, were the prophets at the time of the exile, who were rejected or killed, because the chosen people didn’t want to hear the truth about their misuse of the Vineyard. And later, the son with whom God is well pleased, Jesus, was also cast out, who is also “the stone that the builders rejected…” And so Jesus concludes, “the realm of God will be taken away from [those who aren’t good stewards of the vineyard] and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom.” The thing that keeps us from receiving the prophets and Jesus then, is our worldly rent-to-own values. We have worked the vineyard and we start to think it is ours. And we forget the covenant agreement, the promise, that God gave us the earth to till and keep, to be care-takers, and to be fruitful, delighted, and share it.
In one congregation, the story goes, this rent-to-own mentality became destructive when the choir, a long-time ministry of the church, believed they finally had arrived at ownership, and decided they were above the need to make financial contributions to the church any more. ‘We are claiming ownership of the Vineyard, and you can keep our envelope boxes,’ they declared! But what if everyone who contributed time and talents to care for the church, and tend the vineyard, decided they didn’t need to make an offering of their treasure in this way? When rent-to-own becomes possessive and exclusionary, or turns into a feeling of entitlement, it becomes divorced from the care-taking we are all called to, by our creator, the God who gives us the Vineyard to share and care for.
Answering the call to be good stewards in the Vineyard is more vital today than ever. Yesterday I heard the story of one Texas city that through careful planning and deliberate conservation of their water, has been able to avoid the worst of the drought there. At one time, San Antonio had been as carefree about water usage as any major city, until they were challenged in court by the Sierra Club. In the past, if a drought hit, they too would have simply pumped more water out of the San Antonio River until it was gone. But when the Sierra Club successfully sued them to protect a certain endangered species living in the San Antonio River, the blind salamander, well, at first they got angry. But then they got creative. First, they reduced water consumption, from a per day usage of over 200 gallons per person to about 130. And secondly, during times when the rains are plentiful and the San Antonio Aquifer is full, they aggressively pump out its overflowing waters and store it some 40 miles away in a sand formation called the Carrizo, which could ultimately store, perhaps as much as 65 billion gallons!
Caring for what we have as a gift from God, is something we can all practice, whether it’s the earth’s resources or one another. God gives us this world, this vineyard, not just to use and use up, but to care-take. We are all tenants in this rent-to-own world. But even owners must continue on as care-takers. There is nothing wrong with owning a home instead of renting. Home ownership needs good stewards as well!
Kim and I are renters right now and we are grateful to our landlords, the owners who live upstairs. We pay well for what we get: including a beautiful view onto the Blvd from our historic greystone, with heat, laundry services, and a garage parking spot, all included. But then the owners did something almost unheard of. When they heard that Kim was unemployed recently, they offered to reduce our rent! Maybe it’s because there’s an apartment next door that’s been for rent for many months!? But I like to think they were caring for their Vineyard as a whole, for their building, and for us, the renters, who also respect their property and help in its upkeep, and pay our rent on time. Owners are called on to be good care takers of what is entrusted to them, just as tenants are.
God has taken on the burdens that come with ownership, for repairing, saving and guiding this worldly vineyard, and covenanting with us for the ultimate promise that the Vineyard will be redeemed, and we will be saved. Our world has been created good, and we are invited in to be its care-takers. But if we take a rent-to-own approach, as if there are no longer any burdens or responsibilities for all the precious resources we have been entrusted with, what should God’s answer be? Is it to put us “wretches to a miserable death?”
In the parable, Jesus seems to say, the Vineyard is ours to share and care for, and the reward is up to us. We can choose to accept or reject the cornerstone, to fall on it and be broken to pieces, or, to build on it and be fed by the broken pieces of bread given for us, and the wine of the Vineyard shed for us, that builds us up as the whole Body of Christ.
The abundant life of God’s vineyard, a harvest of rich food and fine wine, is already ours! We are simply called to share and care for it. God’s answer then, is a place at the table in the promised vineyard, where care-takers – tenants and owners alike – find new life in the realm of God.