party hardy!

a sermon, based on Matthew 22.1-14, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 19th Sunday after Pentecost, October 15, 2017

What a bizarre story! Jesus compares the kingdom of heaven to a wedding banquet given by a king.

Who wouldn’t want to be invited? Clearly, none of these folks, who, summoned once, then twice, the second time with the added enticement of a description of the menu of succulent oxen and fatted calves (Yum!), refuse to come, and some of whom kill the messengers! The furious king retaliates, murdering the murderers, who are his subjects, and destroys their city, which is in his kingdom! Nevertheless, the party’s still on, the king inviting people off the street!

Sometimes when I’m preaching, as my personal reality-check, to assure myself that I’ve neither confused you nor left you along the way, I’ll ask you, “Are you with me so far?” As I read on this parable, I hear Jesus asking, “Paul, are you with me so far?” No!

Ah, then I remember that back in that late-first century day, Matthew was referring to the kingdom-banquet of God’s son, the Messiah, Jesus, the invitation to which some had rejected. The violence of the immediate outcome notwithstanding, our focus, as Christians, those who have accepted the invitation, is, must be on what happens at the party; where the king chastises and casts out a guest who, either disregarding or disrespecting the occasion, has failed to dress appropriately and, therefore, is out of place and might as well not have come at all.

Parable of the Great Banquet, Jan Luyken (1649-1712)

My sisters and brothers, God’s salvation in Jesus is a banquet. You and I have been invited to wear the robes of God’s love and justice, to feast on the food of God’s love and justice, to dance to the tune of God’s love and justice, and to share God’s love and justice with all. This, I submit to you, is what it means for a Christian to party hardy! So, let’s wear, feast, dance, and share God’s love and justice, thus, demonstrating our delight in being invited and having accepted the invitation to God’s banquet!

 

Illustration: The Parable of the Great Banquet, Jan Luyken (1649-1712). Note: Luyken’s depiction of the great banquet portrays the moment when the king (on the right with his arm outstretched) directs his attendants to “Bind (the guest who chose not to don a banquet robe) hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness…”

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my?

a sermon, based on Matthew 21.33-46, which I had planned to preach with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church. Laurens, SC, on the 18th Sunday after Pentecost, October 8, 2017. Note: As happens on occasion, in the midst of the liturgy and prior to the sermon I was overwhelmed with emotion during which another word was given to me, I pray by the Holy Spirit, to share with my people of Epiphany Church. I will try to reproduce what I said and post it later.

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Jesus tells a parable, truly, a prediction of his death. Jesus is the son of the landowner, a symbol of God, sent to the vineyard of Israel, following other servants, the prophets, to collect from the tenants, the chief priests and the elders, the due portion of the harvest of the obedience of love and justice for all people.

Parable of the Wicked Tenants (1864), Sir John Everett Millais (1829-1896)

“When the owner of the vineyard comes,” Jesus asks, “what will he do to those tenants?” The chief priests and the elders reply, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death and lease the vineyard to others who will give him the produce at harvest time.” With this answer, they, ironically, unknowingly, reveal their blindness to the reality that they are the object of Jesus’ scathing indictment. They are the wretched tenants who refuse to give God the harvest of righteousness. They are those who have confused sacred leadership for the people with sovereign ownership of the people. For the Owner of the vineyard is God and God alone.

And that point, from the first century unto today unto eternity, is, for us, as God-believing, God-revering folk, a universal truth.

It is difficult, well-nigh impossible for me, for anyone to write or to speak without using the word “my”. My wife. My daughter. My family and friends. My people of Epiphany Church, Laurens, South Carolina. My mind and heart. My soul and spirit. My home and property. My day and time. My life and labor and leisure. My money…

The risk of employing this necessary word referencing our realization of our connection to people, places, and things is that we unconsciously can come to believe, and act accordingly, that we possess people, places, and things (an equal danger being that people, places, and things can possess us to the point that we cannot live freely, fully without them).

Yes, in some sense, in this mercantile world, we do own things (our creditors and the IRS surely think so!). And, yes, as we know that in death we can take nothing of this life with us, it is prudent that we make legal provision for the disposition of our things.

Nevertheless, these worldly practicalities cannot, must not, must never obscure our constant realization of the eternal revelation that God is Owner and Provider of all life and all that is in this life and the next…

Therefore, you and I, as God-believing, God-revering folk, alway, every day, every moment of the day, are to discern, come to know, and to decide, choose, to offer to God the produce, the harvest of our living in our love and justice toward all…

For it is in this act of faith, hope, and love, that we, with sincerity and truth, can say, “my God!”

 

Illustration: Parable of the Wicked Tenants (1864), Sir John Everett Millais (1829-1896). Note: Millais depicts the son of the landowner lying dead outside the vineyard fence under the eyes of two of the murderous tenants; upper right, the vineyard watchtower stands in the distance.

which one?

Epiphany 1-22-17a sermon, based on Matthew 21.23-32, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 17th Sunday after Pentecost, October 1, 2017

Never answer a question with a question, so the olden adage advises, lest one be accused of refusing to engage in honest dialogue or, as bad, seeking to conceal one’s ignorance. Clearly, Jesus was no proponent of this school of thought.

Jesus triumphally entered Jerusalem,[1] then brazenly cleansed the temple of money changers and sellers of animals,[2] thus, disrupting the sacred economy of the institution of ritual sacrifice, and now, self-authorized, has taken up residence in the temple, teaching, preaching. The chief priests and elders charged with maintaining order, demand, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?”

The Pharisees Question Jesus, James Tissot (1886-1894)

The accusatory tone of these religious leaders is a strong indication that it’s hardly likely they will accept anything Jesus says. Nevertheless, given, again, their role as overseers of the life of worship of their people, God’s people, theirs is a fair question. What does Jesus do? He answers their question with a question to which they plead the fifth, refusing to answer. Jesus doesn’t answer their question, but rather responds with a parable about two sons whose father asks to labor in the vineyard. One says, “No”, but then goes. The other says, “Yes,” but then doesn’t go.

Parable of the Two Sons, James Tissot (1836-1902)

“Which of the two,” Jesus pointedly asks not only those chief priests and elders, but also us, “did the will of his father?”

The one who appears to be, who presents herself, himself to be a follower of Jesus who outwardly does the right things, but whose mind and heart, soul and spirit are far from doing, being the love and justice of the kingdom of God or the one who by all appearances fails, falls from grace time and time again, but finally responds favorably to the call of Jesus, “Follow me”, acting fairly, living faithfully; even if it comes at the proverbial “eleventh hour” of the last breath of life in this world!

Which one are you? Which one am I? Jesus calls you and me to answer and not with a question.

On another, deeper level, I believe the answer to Jesus’ question is neither the one who said, “No”, but did go nor the one who said, “Yes”, but didn’t go, but rather Jesus himself. He was…is the son who when sent to proclaim in word and deed God’s will of self-sacrificial, unconditional love, came among us teaching and preaching, holding out his hands especially to the least, last, and lost, then stretching out his arms, loving us all, from the least to the greatest, to death, his own, that we might be redeemed from sin and death. Jesus is the son we are to imitate.

When Jesus asks us, as he does today and every day, “Which son did the will of his father?”, by the grace of God, let us answer, “You, Jesus, are the one and you, Jesus, are the one we follow that we, your sisters and brothers, God’s daughters and sons, might do, be fulfillments of God’s will.

 

Illustrations:

The Pharisees Question Jesus (Les pharisiens questionnent Jésus) (1886-1894), James Tissot (1836-1902)

Parable of the Two Sons, James Tissot

Footnotes:

[1] Matthew 21.1-11

[2] Matthew 21.12-13

equality

preaching-epiphany-laurens-1-22-17a sermon, based on Matthew 20.1-16, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 16th Sunday after Pentecost, September 24, 2017

God asks, “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?” And we humans, alway, in our innate self-interest, wanting what we want when and how we want it, ifwhen we’re honest, answer testily, “No!”

God asks, “Are you envious because I am generous?” And we humans, chastened by the implication of the question, again, ifwhen we’re honest, answer quietly, “Yes.”

Jesus tells a parable, comparing God’s kingdom to a landowner who hires workers throughout the day from first light to an hour before dusk, literally the now proverbial “eleventh hour”. At day’s end, the landowner, summoning the workers in reverse order from the last to the first hired, perhaps to assure that all will see and know what’s up, pays all the same wage.

Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard, Erasmus Quellinus the Younger (or Erasmus Quellinus II) (1607-1678)

I know of no human being, including me, who doesn’t take offense, however slight, more likely great, at the landowner’s munificence, which, in worldly terms, thus, for us, is injustice. For there is no human being who does not employ the worldly calculus of time and effort, sense of purpose and spirit of perseverance, ability and achievement to determine, surely, we believe, fairly, the measure of our deserving: “I had more, gave more, did more, therefore, I should get more!” Whatever the wage – financial remuneration, public recognition, and, yes, even personal attention and affection.

And how right we are. For we have a right, in the light of the way the world is, this world we inhabit, to our time-honored sense of what makes sense. Yet Jesus says, “The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who” – with the inequality of his authority, possessing land and wealth, over and against day laborers who have nothing but the strength of arm and the sweat of brow to exchange for a daily wage – establishes equality for all.

And, by faith, dare we say, “Thanks be to God!” who, in the life and ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus, doesn’t pay us, but rather gives to us, each and all equally, not the wage, but rather the grace of salvation, which is ridiculously, unfathomably beyond our deserving.

Why does God do this? Because God loves us equally no matter who we are, no matter how much or how little we have, give, and do; all the while, hoping, praying that we will see and know what’s up, and then act toward one another accordingly.

 

Illustration: Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard, Erasmus Quellinus the Younger (or Erasmus Quellinus II) (1607-1678)

the kingdom of heaven may be compared to…except when it can’t!

preaching, 1-22-17a sermon, based on Matthew 18.21-35, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 15th Sunday after Pentecost, September 17, 2017

To be human is to live in relationships. To live in relationships is to know the joys of love and acceptance and the sorrows of disagreement and disappointment, hurt and anger with others and with one’s self. To know sorrow is to face, at times, to fight with the need for forgiveness of others and of one’s self.

Peter raises (unbeknownst to him, on our behalf!) this life-essential issue of forgiveness with Jesus. He proposes a limit of seven times; a magnanimous act, doubling an ancient standard of three, adding one for good measure! Jesus, as we’ve grown to expect, takes the matter to another, supernatural level, expanding the economy of forgiveness beyond the bounds of human imagination: “Not seven times, but seventy-seven” (meaning infinite) “times.”

I visualize Peter’s face, perhaps ours, too, frozen in shock as he and we struggle to comprehend limitless forgiveness. Quickly we might object: “Jesus, are you crazy? The world, yours then and ours now, doesn’t work this way! Our relationships are built and balanced on scales of give and take and our judgments of right and wrong, and, frankly Jesus, some things are terrible and can’t be forgiven and, if so, only after a long time!” But before we can stammer out our protest, Jesus holds up a calming hand, saying, “For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to…”

Jesus tells a parable of a king who forgives a pleading servant unable to pay a massive debt. That servant then condemns a fellow servant who owes, in comparison, a pittance. Other servants report this ingratitude to the king, who furiously reverses his decree of amnesty, sending that unmerciful servant to his doom.

Parable of the Unmerciful Servant (1556), Jan Sanders van Hemessen (1500-1579), University of Michigan Museum of Art

A traditional Christian interpretation considers this parable a symbol of God’s grace. The king represents God who, in the life and ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus, has forgiven our sinful debt of disobedience that we could not pay. Therefore, we are to share the kindness of God’s forgiveness with our fellow human beings, whose wrongs, no matter how great in human terms, from heaven’s standpoint, cannot compare.

However, there are problems with this view…

Chief among them, the king, in revoking his pardon of the unmerciful servant, implies that there are limits on God’s illimitable forgiveness, which, at best, is a conundrum and, at worst, a contradiction…

And even if we view the torture of the unmerciful servant through a psycho-existential lens, perceiving it as the ill of bitterness that we inflict on ourselves when we refuse to forgive (though I believe that’s true!), it remains a penalty initiated by the king, who, again, represents God…

And the parable is built on a foundation of earthly inequality of authority and power between the king and servant and between servant and servant…

And, from there, the parable progresses on a worldly arc of the injustice of servant to servant and the vengeance of the fellow servants, desiring punishment, reporting the misdeed to the king who, again, revokes his pardon, therefore, imitating the cruelty of the unmerciful servant.

Limited forgiveness, inequality, injustice, vengeance. No, no, no, no! This is not, cannot be a depiction of the God Jesus reveals. This is not an image of love. Therefore, as I believe the kingdom of heaven may not be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants, this parable is a correction, verily, a condemnation of a world, our world where we humans limit forgiveness and worse, when hurt and angry, oft fall prey to the temptation to make God in our image as one whose judgments are like ours, thus not set on a scale of gracious and merciful love. (How many times has someone done another wrong and the offended party or a sympathizer said words to the effect: “God has a day of reckoning in store for that person!” or more bluntly, “God’s going to get that person!”)

Yes, some things in this life are terrible. And when terrible things, especially when wrought by human hands, happen to others and to ourselves, we would do violence to the souls of others and ourselves to demand that forgiveness, theirs and ours, be swift and absolute. Sometimes forgiveness takes time. Yet forgiveness alway is our calling that we, as God, may live in unlimited liberty, unfettered by the bonds of bitterness.

 

Illustration: Parable of the Unmerciful Servant (1556), Jan Sanders van Hemessen (1500-1579), University of Michigan Museum of Art. Note: The painting depicts the moment in the parable when the king (on the left, pointing, his countenance creased in anger) scolds the unmerciful servant (on the right, gazing at the king, his brow furrowed, his hands clasped in a pleading gesture, his mouth partially open as if speaking, seeking to make his case): “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?” (Matthew 18.32b-33). The two other figures in van Hemessen’s portrayal of the parable are the king’s record keepers; one counting coins piled on the table and the other, with pen in hand, looking to the king for direction. In the background, a man is being dragged into an underground chamber by soldiers, representing the soon to come fate of the unmerciful servant: In anger his lord handed him over to be tortured… (Matthew 18.34).

Jesus, the subversive

Note: At yesterday morning’s service, as I ended my sermon, an additional word about the appointed gospel (Matthew 13.31-33, 44-52) occurred to me, which I shared during announcements. It rarely surprises me when things other than what I intended to say come to mind, for I am a person of constant second (third, fourth, fifth, sixth…on and on) thoughts. I cannot recreate precisely what I said, but it was something like this…

Jesus launched a movement, going out into his first century world to share in word and deed the near presence of the kingdom of heaven, indeed, of God. The church, founded on Jesus’ life and labor, is an institution. Throughout human history, whatever the endeavor, in the transition from precipitating origin to permanent organization, something can be lost. At times, I wonder whether we, two millennia later, run the risk of domesticating Jesus, thus, losing any sense of his radical, revolutionary nature. Looking again at this morning’s series of five parables, I focus on the first three, for they reveal, expose Jesus’ subversive edginess.

Jesus, as a storyteller, as all good storytellers, employed familiar images and ideas, which his listeners readily recognized. Yet he frequently, outrageously turned those images and ideas on their proverbial heads, catching people unawares, arresting their attention. I picture Jesus leading us to a comfortable chair in which a long, sharp tack is embedded, inviting us to sit, all the while hoping we have not lost our sensitivity to new ways of thinking, of seeing our lives and world.

So, today…

The Parable of the Mustard Seed, Jan Luyken (1649-1712)

The kingdom of heaven is like a tiny mustard seed that grows into a great tree where birds make their nests. No, it doesn’t! The mustard seed is small, but the mustard plant is no tree, but a weed (a shocking comparison when the fabled cedars of Lebanon would be a far better image!) that, spreading quickly, is difficult, impossible to uproot. Ah, this is the nature of God’s kingdom!

The Parable of the Leaven, John Everett Millais (1829-1896)

The kingdom of heaven is like a woman (a shocking comparison in a first century patriarchal society!) mixing yeast (another shocking comparison, for yeast was an ancient symbol of unrighteousness!) in three measures of flour, which was a vast amount, yielding bread able to feed multitudes. Ah, this is the nature of God’s kingdom!

The Parable of the Hidden Treasure (c. 1630), Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn (1606-1669)

The kingdom of heaven is like a hidden treasure in a field (so far, so good!) that a man finds, then hides (uh oh!), then sells all of his possessions and buys the field; all of which amounts to thievery! In Jesus day, a similar parable was in circulation. A man had a field with a buried treasure, but he did not know it. He died, bequeathing the field to his son, who later sold it. The buyer, plowing the field, discovered the treasure.[1] This version of the tale eliminates the immorality. Jesus, in his telling, retains it. Ah, this is the nature of God’s kingdom! It is treasure, yet one, once found, that always calls, challenges, confronts us with choices between righteousness and unrighteousness.

Ah, Jesus, a storyteller with the soul of a subversive!

 

Illustrations:

The Parable of the Mustard Seed, Jan Luyken (1649-1712)

The Parable of the Leaven, John Everett Millais (1829-1896)

The Parable of the Hidden Treasure (c. 1630), Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn (1606-1669)

Footnote:

[1] Gospel of Thomas 109