Well, another week here in the Land of the Free. That means another mass shooting and another round of funerals for our brothers and sisters taken in the middle of radiant, beautiful lives. And once again, all gun apologists can offer grieving families are three words to compound their pain; three words certain to do little to comfort them, and even…
Grace abounds. Particularly in our Romans passage and Matthew’s telling of the Laborers in the Vineyard we see this.
Paul talks about it by continuing to assert that God’s promise is realized through faith, not the law. “For the law brings wrath; but where there is no law, neither is there violation. For this reason it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace….”
In Jesus’ parable grace is realized through the actions of the owner of vineyard. Frankly it is all over, for God’s full “yes” is extended even to those who do not deserve a full wage. But think about the owner for a minute, who is prompted to hire more workers simply because he sees them “standing idle in the marketplace.” He hires them not because he needs more workers, but simply because he sees workers who need work. This is a terrible businessman! But this is a wonderful symbol of God’s grace. In God’s kingdom all have a place, and all find contentment. In God’s kingdom we aren’t driven by good business practices, but a practice of love, abundance, and grace.
This is a regular theme of the New Testament that grace supercedes the law, and one that continues to get kick back from religious leaders in all corners of the Church. It is just too much to think about Love and Grace trumping rules. And yet I see a church that is consumed by laws and condemnation lately. We have a lot of “no’s” for a world that is looking to us for God’s “yes”.
For Paul, the struggle was over circumcision – Gentile versus Jew. Today it is about marriage equality, inclusion, and who should be ordained. Paul took a bold stand that righteousness is primarily about faith, not circumcision. It was a struggle over outward forms versus inward realities. His ideas weren’t going to win without a fight, a fight that consumed the early church for the better part of a century.
I wonder how Paul would answer these questions. Or Jesus. Some of my friends don’t like Paul (oh that is putting it mildly – they hate the guy) because they see him as anti-women, backward, and antiquated. But I see him breaking down the walls of his time – boundaries of law. This is the man who declared in Christ there was no male nor female. So don’t be so sure, my progressive friends, that Paul wouldn’t agree with you 100% about the ordination of all.
Paul struggled mightily to have Gentiles included in this new congregation of Christians, and now we too struggle – struggle to include gays and lesbians as full members of the community of faith. (My goodness, do you mean ALL MEANS ALL?) This is nothing new to the PCUSA. But my Methodist brothers and sisters are having convulsions of polity – struggling toward inclusion and a more faithful reading of Holy Scripture.
Once again we have traded in the radical nature of the Gospel of Love for the comfort and safety of draconian rules. (And after all, things like Levitical laws are easy and seductive, black and white, simple). We have failed to articulate the deep and driving forces of the Gospel, which live into a more gray world, and which lay a foundation for full inclusion of women in leadership and gays and lesbians at the table.
Nothing has changed. It is the same Church as for Paul. Will our community be one of law, or one where there is a new law of faith and love? Will our community be one that throws out rules completely or reads all rules through the lens of Scripture? Will our community get stuck proof-texting, or reading the entire blueprint of scripture that clearly laws out that All Means All?
My response comes easy.
A strange juxtaposition to that comes today in Matthew, with a focus on the parable of the rich young man. “It will be hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”
Jesus’ use of this colorful camel-through-a-needle hyperbole is in effect saying – to use an analogy from today – it is easier for a rich man to enter heaven than for the Senate to pass effective gun legislation. It would appear to be an impossibility bordering on miracle.
This story, as Tom Long puts it, is about two worlds colliding: this world, with all its prevailing customs and values, and a radical new way of life called “the kingdom of heaven”. With the rich young man’s question we see the two worlds collide even in his ambiguous question, which seems to skate in both.
On a very basic level this appears to be a story about works. Verse 25: When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astounded and said, “Then who can be saved?” But Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but for God all things are possible.”
Jesus was a Presbyterian!?! Sweet deal! Here we are reminded that God is the mover and shaker. Everything begins with God’s movement in our lives. It turns out all of us are in the same boat as the rich young man, tied to our worldly affairs so much we are unwilling to let go. This is the essence of original sin.
But with God all things are possible. It is possible for us to let go and claim the newness which is already offered by Jesus Christ. Not an escape from this world, but God offers a release from the power of greed, money, status, and worth. We have found new and everlasting worth with Christ.
This is the miracle of the gospel. The abundance of God’s love is so great, that we can talk about it in terms of a camel going through the eye of a needle. It is an abundance of impossibility. Not counting our faults, the love of God washes over us like a gentle rain, encapsulating us.
There are those who believe that text is not a metaphor, but a literal “eye of a needle.” But did you that in some later centuries, the early churches had doors that were referred to as “eyes of needles”? Tired of the rich people riding their horses into the sanctuary, they would shrink the doors so only people could get through, raising the bottom, lowering the top, so it was what amounted to a crawl space.
And what a way to start church! You are reminded that you can pass through the eye of a needle, when you are amongst God’s faithful. With God all things are possible! It’s even possible to travel through the eye of a needle – traveling through every Sunday morning.
My goodness, maybe the Senate will pass some gun legislation. The impossible has become possible – with God.
One of the things I love about the Presbyterian Church is its rotation of leadership. Every time our national church entity meets – the General Assembly – we elect a new Moderator. This is the equivalent of the Presbyterian Pope. On a personal note, it is an honor to have a number of former moderators follow my Morning Reflections. The world truly has become small through technology.
Just this weekend our General Assembly gathered again. It is often a time of hearty debate about the future of the church, peppered with numerous hot button issues. It is not easy to step into leadership roles at this level – you often are painting a big red target on yourself. But this is what we do in our church – elect leaders who guide the church and discern the spirit. Rarely does the whole congregation vote on hot button issues. Instead it is the board of elders that deals with stuff like this (the session) or in the national church’s case, the General Assembly.
Just yesterday they did something quite new, electing co-moderators for the first time, to share the mantle of leadership. If you are interested in all the happenings: Watch the live stream of the 222nd General Assembly (2016) here . You can also follow the daily news at: pcusa.org/ganews
Interestingly enough I turned to our Numbers passage and it involves some similar struggles. It is the revolt of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram, who stand before Moses and Aaron and let em have it. The struggle is over leadership – specifically secular or sacred leadership in the tabernacle. Levites or Reubenites, or the whole congregation. Who is to be in charge.
Moses and Aaron are accused of being attention hogs, electing themselves as leaders and not allowing anyone else to approach God.
This is the beginning of many things. The Levites are assigned specific duties in the Lord’s tabernacle, and are quickly learning that their spiritual gifts are in the area of worship. The Levites are the first Worship Committee! Isn’t this the case in all our churches? There are always some who have special gifts in the area of worship leadership. They become the Altar Guild or the Worship Team/Committee/Leaders.
Leadership in the context of serving the Lord is an important thing for us to look at here. We are members of a religious order in which we acknowledge God is leading us. And yet we have leaders in our midst. What is their place? Are we all allowed to approach the throne of grace? The Reformation had some different angles on the direction the Roman Catholic church had taken this answer.
And yet, being Protestants and believing in the priesthood of all believers, we still have leaders.
That is because, just like in this story, we all have gifts. We must discern them and learn our place, for in it we will find much joy and God’s grace will seem all the more bright. This is at the heart of vocational discernment. When one’s strengths intersect with the world’s need, there is much rejoicing.
In Matthew, Jesus blesses the little children. They are innocent and without agenda. Children are full of ambition. Jesus welcomes them, “for such is the kingdom of heaven.”
Children are ambitious about the future. In fact, they are forward looking machines. They also are open to being loved, being led, and being shepherded. This was the quality lacking in Korah, Dathan, Abiram, and the gang.
Let us open our hearts to not only leading in our vocation, but taking another’s lead in theirs. Let us pray for our GA as they lead us into GOD’s NEW FUTURE. Yes, you heard me right. It is not their future, but Christ’s will that is being discerned. At the end of the day, this is how God leads us forward, just as he did in Numbers and Matthew.
The question comes to Jesus: “Who is the greatest?” His answer? He calls a little child forward and says that unless we change and become like children we will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
Children are playful and carefree – they are insightful and creative. I learn this lesson daily having my office in the midst of our SPARK after-school program, which during the summer is an all day program of fun and learning. This year the theme is the Olympics, as the Summer Olympic Games are coming up pretty soon. The kids have chosen countries, and are learning about their adopted country. I pushed for the Congo because of my favorite Thunder player. But none of the classes took me up on that offer.
Not surprisingly a lot of the activities feature these kids full of energy. And their energy and excitement never seem to run dry. Sometimes I will be on the phone with one of you and you will come to know that, for a sea of giggles and excitement from the hall come spilling into my office. Of course I leave the office door open. Why wouldn’t I?!?! Yes, it can be distracting at times, but SOOOO worth it. I leave that door open so they can pop in and say HI, but also for the shear joy of sharing in their excitement.
Spending every summer in their midst reminds me why Jesus puts children in such a revered position. Often we mock children and youth, for their innocence and fervor, and being ignorant or oblivious to politics and church fights.
But it is their very spirit which may save us. Children crave togetherness. They exhibit hope and joy at almost every turn (Yes they can be toots, but the good far outweighs the bad, especially when they are allowed simple carefree moments to be themselves). The church needs a good dose of focusing on joy and togetherness, and not worrying so much about the things we worry about.
The Bible is filled with bizarre stories, and today one comes our way: the odd story of Jesus and the Temple Tax. Rarely will you hear this read in church on a Sunday morning! So here’s a recap: tax collectors ask Peter if Jesus pays the temple tax. “Yes, he does,” replies Peter. When they get home, Jesus asks him what he thinks of this, asking, “From whom do kings of the earth take toll or tribute? From their children or from others?” “From others,” replies Peter. “Then the children are free,” declares Jesus.
And then so no one takes offense, Jesus has Peter go throw a hook in the sea. The fish that comes out will have a coin in his mouth, declares the Lord. “Take that and give it to them for you and me.”
Strange story, wouldn’t you agree? OK a little background:
The temple tax was an annual tax, a half-shekel per adult Jewish male to support temple sacrifices. It appears that Jesus sees himself and the “true children of God” as exempt from this tax, that the true children of God do not need to contribute to God’s house, because they are of this house.
Preachers avoid this for obvious reasons. What? No tithing? Are members exempt from giving? Reading this passage at stewardship campaigns ends up in a complete bust.
It is a radical response, softened only by the folkloric aspects of St. Peter’s Fish with a coin in his mouth, and the fact that he paid the tax, in fact he would have been twice the required tax. (Did you know the fish of the Sea of Galilee was tilapia? It has become popular these days, and next time you have it on the menu at a restaurant, ask that it come with a coin in its mouth.)
It is difficult to know how this functions for the Gospel of Matthew. Is Jesus taking a stand against temple sacrifice? Against Rome? It appears it is a stand against giving to the temple altogether.
Matthew was dealing with specific problems, probably Jewish-Christians who were struggling with allegiances, temple taxes, and general identification with being Jewish. Matthew is helping them see the way forward, through the eyes of the true sacrifice, Jesus the Christ. So I don’t think this passage is a green light for anyone to cut their pledge if they disagree with how the church is using their money. It’s actually the opposite.
Think about Matthew’s context. Early Christians quit their jobs, gave all their worldly possessions to the church, and spent their life promoting the gospel. Their tithe was 100% of their lives. Matthew is emphasizing this, and letting the Jewish-Christians know that temple taxes are not for them, but that their new lives are completely washed by their identification as children of God.
Maybe a good summary then is: Put your money where your mouth is. Get your lives in line with God.
I am still waiting to hear a preacher be bold and use this passage for a stewardship campaign. Then I would know we are living by faith.
I came home from a week in Hastings, Nebraska refreshed. It was an extraordinary week of togetherness with other pastors, finding hope and joy in the midst of the rigor of ministry. The Summer Pastor’s School was great.
I also came home to some of out control plants. Some of the shrubs had grown and grown and were overdue for a trimming. The garden was a bit out of control with weeds and overgrowth. There was a potted plant outside I had forgotten about and he was in desperate need of watering. He may not survive. Tending to gardens is being aware that things are always growing and changing, and a whole week of being gone is not ideal.
Turning to our readings for today, I see a lot of things on the move. In Numbers we see God on the move, literally: the “cloud by day and the appearance of fire by night” that covers the tabernacle. If the cloud moves in the morning, the people go with it. If the cloud stays, they remain in camp.
We follow a God who is on the move. He is not stuck up on that mountain. He isn’t dwelling in a permanent temple, for all to come and gaze at in awe. He is unseen. He moves, and is on the move. Where the people go, God goes. It is as if to say, “I will be with you wherever you go.” It is a foreshadowing of God being in our hearts.
Paul, in our Romans passage, also deals with growth – a people growing in faith. Today he lays out the work of a mature mind, and theological concepts like justification, grace, and law.
In Matthew, Jesus cures a boy with a demon and reminds us that if we had faith the size of a mustard seed, we could move mountains.
Growth and movement. God on the move. People growing in the faith.
In many ways Ordinary Time is like this – the summer is like this, with much growth and change. In so many ways God is our gardener, tending, nurturing, and at times pruning our lives. My hope is that this summer becomes a time of the regular diet of Scripture, and that you find yourself growing into God’s word, and discovering God on the move throughout the day.