Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,
This morning, five of us gathered for Bible study, steering our cars carefully toward church to talk about Paul’s letter to the Romans … and Ferguson, Missouri. After last night’s grand jury decision and all that has come after, questions about violence, race and justice were on our hearts and minds.
Paul wrote to Christians in Rome, in part, hoping to heal deep divisions in the church. So we wondered, this morning, if we were to write a letter to heal the church, to heal the world, to speak to all the divisions and bring peace … what would we write? How would we begin?
P. wrote about listening to each other; finding a way to understand what’s really going on in the hearts and minds of people we disagree with. M. wrote about respect, and walking in the other person’s shoes. G. wrote that, no matter what divides us, we are united in God’s love. N. wrote: “We are all humans.”
St. Paul starts his letter to the Romans by introducing himself and his topic, by addressing his audience as beloved children of God who are called to be saints, and with these familiar words: “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” Then, he starts his letter, and the first thing he does is give thanks. “First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is proclaimed throughout the world” (Romans 1:8.)
Paul starts his letter giving thanks, not just for the church leaders, not just for the people who agreed with him and supported his ministry, but for all of the Christians in Rome. He could have written, “I thank God for those of you who agree with my theology and my ministry. The rest of you can get lost.” But he didn’t.
Last night, right after the news came out, I posted something kind of vague on facebook (beware late-night facebooking!) about feeling sad, and wanting to listen and pray. Two of my friends commented on the post, and were soon going back and forth in dispute. One friend was angry with the grand jury decision not to convict Darren Wilson. The other was angry with people not accepting the work and decision of the grand jury.
The interesting thing about these two particular friends of mine is that they’re both incredibly committed and devoted Christians: they walk the walk. E. is a lawyer who also mentors people recovering from alcohol addiction. K. is a social worker who also advocates for children with birth defects and their families. I’m not sure when either of them finds time to sleep. I have turned to them many times when I needed help, or when someone from this congregation needed help. I give thanks to God for them on a regular basis, for all the big and small ways they live out their faith in their daily lives.
We are divided, and those divisions are real. They can’t, and shouldn’t, be glossed over or ignored; turning a blind eye to the real differences between where E. and K. are coming from doesn’t help. But if the church has room for one of them and not the other … that’s not the church. St. Paul knew that, and you and I know it, too, though we need to be reminded of it often. If you look around and all you see are people who look and think exactly like you, that’s not the church.
Noticing the differences is one thing. Getting over our own defensiveness and really listening to those differences is another thing. Finding something to value in that difference, yet another thing. And going out of our way to break out of our comfortable sameness and seek out that difference and build a long-term, real relationship with someone of a different skin color, culture socioeconomic background, political affiliation, or faith … that’s something else altogether. And if it seems like a tall order, it is.
So, where do we start?
Appropriately enough for this week, we start like St. Paul started: giving thanks. You can imagine that, as he wrote it, he might have had some reservations in his mind. “I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you (except you … you know who you are … yes, you.)” Whether it was true or whether he was trying to convince himself it was true, it was still a good place to start. If you give thanks for all people, and do it often enough, it’ll become a habit, and it’ll become true.
As we wrapped up our Bible study this morning, we gave thanks for the conversation we’d had, and some regret that more people couldn’t have been part of it. What good is a conversation between five people in a church on a Tuesday morning? A lot of good, M. reminded us. Change starts with us, and with all the other people getting together and talking this morning and in the mornings to come. “We’re not the only ones having this conversation today,” she said. And if God was part of our conversation, surely God was part of other conversations, too … beyond even what we can imagine.
Let us pray: God, we know you are at work in the world in ways we may not be able to see. You are present and at work in Ferguson, Missouri, in Cleveland, Ohio, in our own community, and everywhere. Give us the courage to engage in difficult conversations with love. Give us the wisdom to listen, even when we feel defensive. Give us your vision to see the belovedness and value of all people. Amen.
Giving thanks to God through Jesus Christ for all of you,
Sermon for the Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost, November 16, 2014, the Rev. Anne Edison-Albright preaching. Today’s text: Matthew 25:14-30 .
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Jesus ends many of his parables with weeping and gnashing of teeth. So many, actually, end this way that I don’t usually pay any attention to it. If anything I roll my eyes at it and make a joke, because it’s just so dramatic, right?
Thrown into the outer darkness.
Weeping and gnashing of teeth.
I spent a lot of time in church when I was growing up, and when you’re a church kid, your references and vocabulary are bound to be shaped by what you hear. So “the outer darkness” and “weeping and gnashing of teeth” have always been phrases I use in everyday conversation, and I still do it …
Like, if my son, Walter, and my daughter, Sally, have a loud annoying toy, you know, the kind that don’t have an off switch and that start blaring loudly and lighting up in the middle of the night … you know the ones. Many of these toys have been banished to the outer darkness. And when my children go looking for these toys and cannot find them, I can tell you, there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.
I joke about it because the words seem odd and theatrical to me, and, because, honestly, it makes me uncomfortable and I don’t know what else to do with it. So, I joke about it, or I ignore it, but not today.
If I pay attention the end of the parable, I end up with a lot of questions: What or where is the outer darkness? Is it Hell? Did the 3rd slave really deserve to be punished like that?
I think it’s important to start by being clear that this parable really only makes sense as an extended metaphor: Jesus is not giving investment advice. He’s not saying that people who are rich and who invest wisely and get richer are blessed and saved; while people who are poor and who don’t take risks with money are condemned to the outer darkness. That’s not what this is about.
So, what is it about?
When I was puzzling over this parable I found it helpful to focus just on one piece of it. The master entrusted each slave with one or more valuable coins, called talents. Why did the third slave bury the coin he was given?
I had to look back at the reading to figure it out. This is verse 24: “‘Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground.”
He was afraid.
He didn’t want to risk losing the little he’d been given. So, he buried it.
What do we do when we’re afraid? We hunker down, right?
We stockpile provisions. (What do you buy at the store when a storm’s coming?)
We clutch at the things that we’re afraid of losing. (How does a pickpocket know where you keep your valuables?)
We put another lock on the door or maybe a gun in the nightstand.
We try to shut the danger out as best we can and we try to hide. We try to hide ourselves and the things and the people that are precious to us.
I saw something on facebook this week making fun of luxury survival bunkers for millionaires. Might as well survive nuclear disaster in style, right? And that kind of thing does seem a little extreme.
Or maybe it feels familiar.
Do some of you remember running regular drills at school to prepare for the possibility of a nuclear attack? What did you do?
Did you hide under your desks?
Does that seem silly now? Did it seem silly then? Were you afraid?
The fear was real.
Kids today run drills, too, and go on lockdown, preparing for the possibility that a person with a gun might come into the school. They hide as best they can, too, knowing that, in a real emergency, all their preparations might not actually save them.
The fear is real.
As a parent, I wonder about those drills, because I know that, in an emergency, you can only do what you’ve practiced, what you know how to do instinctually. If you haven’t practiced, you will probably do something that increases your risk of danger.
On the other hand, I don’t want my children to live in fear. Do the drills and the lockdowns make the fear worse than it needs to be? Do they give a false sense of security? Do they actually help?
I don’t know … but I’m guessing some of you who are teachers have thoughts on this, based on your experience, and those of you who remember what it was like to hide under your desk as a child, maybe you have opinions on the good or the ill that did for you, too.
What I know for sure is this: the fear is real.
The urge to hide is real.
I never realized how much of being a parent is just being terrified. It’s sneaking into their room and making sure they’re still breathing when they’re babies. And, I’ve been told, “You just wait … at least you know where your kids are when they’re babies.” Because the terror of parenting is also sitting up late into the night until they come home when they’re teenagers.
Every day my husband Sean and I discover a million new reasons to be afraid. And if we were paying closer attention I think we’d be totally incapacitated by fear, because the fear is real, the danger is real, and it makes you want to take the little you’ve been given, the things or the people that are most precious to you in the world, and hide them, eliminate, or at least minimize the risk, try to keep them safe.
And that’s what it’s like to live in the outer darkness.
That’s where we weep, and we gnash our teeth, or, as the common English bible translation reads, “grind” our teeth.
I grind my teeth when I’m afraid, do you? Suddenly the image doesn’t seem so odd and funny and far-fetched.
I’ve been to the outer darkness, and I think you’ve been there, too.
Maybe you’re there right now.
The third slave didn’t need to be thrown into the outer darkness, and he didn’t do anything to deserve the punishment of being sent there.
He was there already.
He was living in fear, and his actions, his choices, were motivated by fear.
I don’t think it’s possible for anyone to avoid the outer darkness completely. Long nights of weeping and teeth-grinding are part of life, inevitable.
But I also don’t think we have to live in the outer darkness, either. We aren’t condemned to being consumed by fear.
And the reason we don’t live in the outer darkness is complicated, I think. Part of it is due to the resilience and essential optimism of human nature. God made us to function in spite of all the things in the world there are to be afraid of. If we weren’t made that way, none of us would be here because no one would ever have taken the risk of having children.
Beyond that basic resilience, though, being Christian offers an additional gift. Being Christian obviously doesn’t mean you never encounter danger, or never experience fear. It doesn’t mean that suddenly you’re going to have perfect trust in God, and never worry again. But it does make a difference, because at the heart of the Christian story is a very different kind of burial than the one in the parable of the talents.
The third slave was afraid, and buried a valuable coin, and when he hid it in the earth, nothing good came of it. When Jesus was buried, hidden in the tomb, something very good came out of it. Where there is death, there is always resurrection. Where there is fear, there is always hope. We are baptized into both Jesus’ death and resurrection, and every day our sin is buried and we’re given the gift of new life, of forgiveness, of love that brings us out of the outer darkness and into the light of Christ.
The fear is real.
The outer darkness is real.
But the hope, and the resurrection, that’s real, too.
Sermon for the All Saints Sunday, November 2, 2014, the Rev. Anne Edison-Albright and the Rev. Gary Froseth, preaching. Today’s text: Matthew 5:1-12.
This sermon took the form of an interview between Pastor Gary and Pastor Annie. There’s no transcript available, but audio will be posted soon.
Sermon for the Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost, October 19, 2014, the Rev. Anne Edison-Albright preaching. Today’s text: Matthew 22:15-22
I always thought this was a story about a clever trick question and an even more clever response. But now I think it’s a story about the moment before Jesus answers the question; that moment where I imagine Jesus decided between giving the answer he gave, (“‘Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.’”) or the answer I think he wanted to give, which is to just throw up his hands and say, “Whatever!”
“It doesn’t matter what I say so just … whatever.”
Let me go back a bit and set the scene: Jesus is in Jerusalem. He road in on a donkey and was greeted with Hosanas, and immediately set to work on making as many powerful people as angry as he could possibly make them.
He threw the money changers out of the temple
He cured the blind and the lame people begging outside the temple walls.
He cursed a fig tree.
He stood up in the temple and he preached and preached and preached, telling parable after parable about vineyards and wedding banquets. Jesus sounds angry in these sermons. He sounds tired.
It’s getting late into the afternoon when the Pharisees send their disciples to Jesus with the perfect trap, the perfect trick question.
‘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?’
It’s the perfect trick question, you see, because if Jesus says, “No, don’t pay the emperor. The emperor is an abusive, oppressive tyrant.” If Jesus says that, he’s encouraging a revolt, and the empire will take care of him, maybe even crucify him.
But if Jesus says, “Yes, pay your taxes,” then he’s betraying the hopes and dreams of the people who are following him, all of the people who are hoping he’s the one, the Messiah who will lead a revolt and oust the oppressive occupying regime. If Jesus says, “Pay your taxes,” maybe one of his own disenchanted followers would rather see him dead than alive and doing harm to the cause. Maybe even one of Jesus’ own disciples would feel disappointed enough to betray him.
(Do these possibilities sound familiar?)
So the disciples of the Pharisees ask this question and the crowd holds its breath, thinking this is the moment, this is high stakes, everything is riding on this answer.
But it’s not.
And Jesus knows it.
Jesus knows it, and I imagine him thinking to himself in that split second, that brief moment before he walks into the trap and answers the perfect trick question … I imagine him thinking, “Whatever.”
“It doesn’t matter what I say. I’m going to die either way. All answers, all questions, every step I take is leading me to the cross. I might as well flip a coin.”
Ohhhhh, there’s an idea.
Does anyone have a denarius?
I’ll take a quarter, then.
Coins have two sides, so we use them to make clear-cut decisions, because it’s either/or with a coin. Either heads or tails. Either this or that.
I imagine Jesus taking the coin is his hands, in that millisecond moment before he gives his answer, and seeing that the coin isn’t either/or at all.
Just because we only see one side at a time doesn’t mean the other side of the coin goes away. A coin is always both sides at once. Heads and tails. Life and Death. The cross and the empty tomb.
“‘Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.’”
Be part of this world, and be part of the next world, too.
When I think about Jesus facing the certainty and immediacy of his own death, I think about some of my students when I taught high school in Houston, Texas. I taught a unit on life after high school, and with great cheerfulness and enthusiasm I forced every student to come up with three options, three possibilities for positive tracks they might take after graduation.
They researched colleges, community colleges, trade schools, apprenticeships. I wanted them to look at the future and see open doors, leading them to safer, better lives. And some of them were inspired, I think, and shared my enthusiasm and hope.
And others looked at me the way I imagine Jesus looked at those Pharisees.
“Whatever. It doesn’t matter.”
They looked at me with some anger, but mostly weariness.
“Where do you see yourself five years from now,” I’d prompt them.
They looked at the floor, or out the window, and they didn’t say it out loud, but I knew they were saying, “Five years from now? Probably dead. Maybe in prison.”
Most teenagers think they’re immortal, but these guys, they’d seen death, and they knew it was coming for them, too.
I saw all this in their eyes as they looked away from me and drew nervous scribbles on the margins of their otherwise-blank future-planning worksheets.
And I brushed it all aside, and insisted they fill out those worksheets, and pretended I hadn’t seen that look in their eyes.
What I wish I’d done, now, looking back on it, is this:
I wish I’d said, “I know you think you don’t have a future, because you’re going to die. And you are going to die … maybe when you’re young, maybe when you’re old. And until you die, you are alive. How will you live?”
Not, “Hey kid, how are you going to live? Are you going to shape up, or what?”
But genuine, and inviting whatever answer he might give, and hopefully having the grace to really listen to that answer.
How will you live?
How will we live?
How can we live, knowing that we will die?
I think the answer will always be both/and … it’s always both/and with Jesus. We will live in tension, as both sides of the coin at once, we will live knowing that we will die. We will die in the hope of the resurrection. We will be people of this world and also people of the world to come. We’ll be saints and sinners at the same time. We’ll eat this meal that is bread and wine and body and blood. We’ll confess our faith in a God who came to earth, fully human and fully God.
And when we are feeling trapped, or tricked, or forced to choose, either/or … in that moment of weariness, of whatever, of wanting to just flip the coin already, because what does it matter, anyway …
In that moment we’ll pray. And God, who is both/and and more than that, too, who hears our anger and our weariness and our fear of death, God will listen, and love us, and show us how to live in the tension, in the both/and.
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The prophet Isaiah started us out today with a love song for a vineyard. He describes the care that God the vineyard owner takes in the creation, protection, and pleasant planting of the world.
If I were going to write a love song today, I would write a love song about Stevens Point, Wisconsin. Seriously, we live in one of the most beautiful places in the world.
My love song would probably focus mostly on Stevens Point in summer when the weather is—no exaggeration—perfect, and early fall before the rain washes all the color out of the trees. And maybe there would be a verse or two of begrudging respect for winter. Probably nothing about spring, because I don’t believe it actually exists here.
There would be a whole stanza, though, about the time I was driving to Appleton and passed a dairy farm on a hill where the calves were actually skipping, I mean really, dancing on the green grass in the sunlight like an advertisement for pure joy.
I would write, too, about the beauty not only of the small towns and the fields and the trees and the rivers and lakes, but also the beauty I see when I look out at your faces on Sunday mornings. This beautiful congregation. People of all ages and all kinds of different backgrounds and life experiences living and worshipping and serving and fellowshipping together in faith.
There would be at least two stanzas in this love song about multiple generations tying quilts together.
My love song would be long, and overflowing with gratitude, and kind of mushy. And I would be tempted to leave it at that. Because, honestly, I don’t want to sing about the brokenness and the heartbreak in this beautiful congregation, in this beautiful community, in our beautiful world. I want to wrap myself in the memory of those last, long warm days of summer, turn off the news and pretend that the beauty all around us is all there is.
But it’s not.
Isaiah’s love song isn’t very long or mushy. Quickly it turns from images of careful planting and tending to despair and heartbreak as the vineyard is overrun, and as it destroys itself from within. The love song ends with a powerful indictment: when the Lord of hosts looked upon the vineyard, God’s beautiful, pleasant planting, God “expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry!”
Do you see the bloodshed in our world today? Do you hear the cries of people who are hungry and hurting, around the world and in our own neighborhoods? Or, like me, are you tempted to look away: to reject the images and stories and terrible truths of everything that is wrong in this beautiful vineyard?
It’s a very natural human response, you know. Human beings have limited empathy, and can really only process so much bad news before we start tuning out. It’s not good for your mental health to care deeply and passionately about everyone and everything. At some point, your body and your brain are going to start rejecting that bad news in the name of self-preservation.
And it’s good to know that about ourselves, and be honest about it, but we also need to know and be honest about the truth that the causes and the people and the problems we don’t care about are actually not just important to God but also actual manifestations of Jesus, God’s son, our Lord.
Jesus quotes scripture to the crowd and says, “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.” Jesus is the stone the builders rejected. And Jesus is in every person we reject, too. Whether we reject them outright or reject them by our apathy, the people we reject are God’s beloved cornerstones.
This week I attended a Wisconsin Council of Churches forum about making poverty the key issue of this election, this legislative session, and the state budgeting process this year. One of the goals of the forum was to empower us to talk about poverty in meaningful ways that appeal to the moral and ethical concerns of people and politicians across party lines. They called it “elevating the debate.”
This is not an easy thing to do.
One of the issues we talked about at the poverty summit was the need for more access to family-supporting jobs: full time jobs that pay a living wage, enough to keep a family above the poverty level, and include access to healthcare. I’ve heard interesting conversations between reasonable people who disagree on how to get us to that goal. I’ve also heard and seen some really unreasonable, degrading and dehumanizing attacks against poor people, particularly against fast food workers making minimum wage.
Maybe you’ve heard it and seen it, too. Maybe you’ve even “liked” it or shared it or thought it was funny. So I need to be clear: I’m not using this example to make some of you feel guilty and make others of you feel self-righteous. I’m using it in the hopes that it will make all of us, myself especially included, a little uncomfortable and possibly open to re-examining the way each of us reject and dehumanize people living in poverty. So, if you’re wondering if this sermon is about you, it is. It’s about all of you, and about me, too.
So, if I clean up the language a little bit, the angry rant boils down to this:
People who work at fast food restaurants don’t deserve to make $10 or $15/hour.
Fast food jobs are supposed to be for high school kids.
If you’re an adult trying to support your family on a fast food job, you’re probably really stupid.
Go back to school and get a real job.
Now, I could respond to that argument with the facts and statistics I learned at the poverty summit this week. For example, 87% of minimum wage workers are 20 years old or older, so, not high school kids. And 45% of minimum wage workers have some college education.
But I also learned at the poverty summit that people don’t change their minds because of statistics and facts. It doesn’t work.
So what does work? Usually advocacy experts say to focus on personal stories, so people build a real connection and understanding based on a relationship with a person who gives them new insight into the issue. But when it comes to people living poverty, we are so judgmental, and so harsh and unforgiving in our judgment that even that personal approach doesn’t break through our prejudice and hatred.
One of our presenters suggested that, if you want people to have compassion for people living in poverty, you should focus on children living in poverty. And that makes sense, because children make up the majority of people living in poverty, and their struggles, their hunger, the way they are formed by the constant stress of living in poverty, all of that is an accident of birth. It’s not their fault.
We find it easier to care about and care for children because they are “innocent.” But ask yourself, do only “innocent” lives matter to God? Are only the people we deem worthy and deserving actually worthy and deserving of compassion and understanding?
What it comes down to is this: the person you degrade, and dehumanize, and call names … that person is Jesus. That person working at McDonald’s is Jesus. And she’s Jesus regardless of how smart she is, or what life choices she’s made. The stone the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone. The person you reject is the cornerstone: an essential, important, beloved child of God.
Now we’re all feeling bad. Thinking about it this way takes a lot of the fun out of making fun of people. And I’m kind of “sorry, not sorry” about that. But I want you to know that preachers preach the sermons they themselves need to hear. And I needed to hear that the people I’ve rejected, either by outright cruelty or by just not caring, I needed to hear that those people are Jesus. Thinking about it this way makes me repent, and it makes hope and pray I never do it again, even though I also know that I’m a sinner, and that this won’t be the last time I’ll be repenting, and praying for God’s forgiveness. So, it won’t be the last time you’ll hear this sermon message, either.
For the record, I’m also not comfortable with angry rants that attack the humanity of wealthy people. That happens sometimes. But there’s a crucial difference: people who have wealth and power and privilege do not face anywhere close to even comparable levels of rejection, persecution, oppression and degradation as do people who lack wealth, power and privilege. That was true in Jesus’ day and it’s true today, too. There’s a reason Jesus is constantly talking about the problem with wealth and power, there’s a reason he’s constantly attacking the powers that be and the status quo and lifting up women, children, the poor, and social outcasts. There’s a reason the first beatitude is “blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
Jesus sees the people we have rejected because they are poor, because they are gay, because they’ve been convicted of a felony, because they are dying of Ebola in West Africa, or because they are going to bed hungry and homeless in Stevens Point, Wisconsin, and Jesus calls them blessed.
God sees the stone the builders rejected and makes it the cornerstone. God looks out at the vineyard, this beautiful, precious, pleasant planting, and God sees it all. God sees the beauty of creation and the beauty of the way we care for each other … because we do, of course. Even with our limited human empathy, we care and care.
God also sees the brokenness, the sin, the angry rants, the outright violence and the apathy, the way we demean and dehumanize each other, the way we reject each other and the way we reject God’s love. God’s love song for us takes all of that in.
I’d like to think God’s love song gets a little mushy at times, and that God is sometimes overwhelmed, as we are, with the beauty of this world and the beauty of life and of living things. But God’s love song is for the whole world, in all its beauty and all its brokenness. God’s love is the source of all beauty, and the healing balm for all brokenness. And God’s love is the reason we can have hope.
When it comes to big issues like poverty, it’s easy to get cynical, to get angry and judgmental, to be apathetic and try to ignore it, to get overwhelmed and feel like there’s nothing we can do. But if Jesus Christ was born, lived, died and rose from the dead, then anything is possible. And we truly are empowered to be God’s hands and feet and voices in the world.
So, what can we do? First of all, regardless of what political party you support, you can vote in November. And you can talk to your representatives about poverty and ask them to make addressing it a priority. One easy way to do that is to follow the QR code on your bulletin. That’ll take you to the Wisconsin Council of Churches Faithful Citizenship Statement.
The Wisconsin Council of Churches is made up of all kinds of Christians whose political views vary widely, so the statement is mostly non-partisan. But, if you’re not comfortable signing it, I’d urge you to make your own statement and call and write your representative with what alleviating poverty in our community would mean and look like to you. Even if you do sign the statement, making a more personal connection with your representative is a good idea. You might think engaging with politicians is a waste of time, but again: anything is possible with God.
Politicians can be convinced to use their power to address the systemic causes of poverty.
The poor in spirit can be blessed and the meek can inherit the earth.
The people we have rejected can become Jesus to us.
Our sins can be completely forgiven.
And the love song of God, sung by the Holy Spirits into our hearts and minds, can inspire us to work for a world where no one goes to bed hungry, where people are able to work and support their families, where people of multiple generations tie quilts together, and where the Lord of Hosts looks out and sees justice and righteousness, and peace in the vineyard. Amen.
or right-click to download the MP3.
How are we supposed to believe in something that makes no sense?
How are we supposed to trust in something when it goes against everything we’ve been taught to believe, everything we’ve been conditioned to believe, everything we know to be true about the world and how it works?
When I sat down to write this sermon, my two-year-old son, Walter, was sitting next to me. He was supposed to be taking a nap. He was completely exhausted and making increasingly terrible choices in his attempts to stay awake. To distract him from trying to grab and throw my computer, I asked him a question I thought might get his attention.
“I’m writing my sermon,” I said, “Do you want to know what it’s about?”
He calmed down a little bit, and nodded.
“It’s about how God loves everyone, no matter what.”
“No matter what?”
“No matter what. God loves you when you make good choices, but God also loves you when you make bad choices. God wants you to make good choices, but when you don’t, that doesn’t mean he stops loving you.”
And then Walter said something that broke my heart.
“No, Mama,” said Walter. “When I make bad choices, God doesn’t love me.”
Walter is two, he’ll be three in October. We tell him all the time that we love him unconditionally, that his Dad and I might not like his choices, but we always love him. And we tell him that God is like that, too. We tell him and show him over and over, in all kinds of different ways, that he is always completely loved, and always fully forgiven, and he doesn’t believe it.
Or maybe he believes it sometimes, but not others. And that’s why I feel like I have to tell all of you, over and over, again and again, in all kinds of different ways:
God loves you.
God loves you completely and forgives you fully.
No matter what.
And maybe if you don’t believe me right now, maybe you’ll believe me next week, when I tell you again.
But let’s say you do come to believe that God truly loves you and forgives you completely and unconditionally. You’re not out of the woods yet, because now you have to apply that not just to you, but to everyone else, too.
The next logic-defying mental leap of your Christian faith is to believe that God loves other people just as completely and unconditionally as God loves you.
And by other people, I mean all other people, including your worst enemies.
This is about where Jonah drops out and says, “No way, God. I’m sorry, but I’d rather die than live in world where you forgive the people of Nineveh.”
Nineveh was the capital of Assyria, and the Assyrian empire was guilty of some pretty heinous war-crimes, including the brutal killing of children … similar, in some ways, to the killing and atrocities happening in that same part of the world today.
So, imagine that the Ninevites in the first lesson are actually ISIS. Jonah’s response to God’s compassion for them makes a little more sense.
Jonah isn’t just angry, he’s righteously angry. He thinks the people of Nineveh deserve to die, and that they certainly do not deserve God’s mercy, compassion and forgiveness.
So God sends the bush and the worm and the sultry wind to remind Jonah that the people of Nineveh—and not just the people, but the animals, too—are God’s beloved creation, God’s children, God’s creatures. And God loves them.
God loves you, and God loves all of creation. No exceptions.
That one’s really hard to believe, truly it is. But maybe you do believe it, or maybe you’re able to believe it sometimes. Even if you believe that God loves you and God loves all of creation, you’re still not out of the woods.
Here comes Jesus with another parable about a vineyard, and he’s going to ask you to believe that God doesn’t love you any more than anyone else, just because you’re a good person.
This, I think, is where most Christians drop out and say, “Sorry, God. I can believe in the virgin birth, the resurrection from the dead, the life of the world to come and the Holy Trinity, but now you’re going too far.”
When my mom was editor of Lutheran Woman Today they ran an article that very gently suggested that God’s grace and forgiveness is for all people.
They got a lot of angry letters about that. One always stuck with my mom and it said: “If God forgives everyone, and everyone can go to heaven, why have I been good?”
Why have I spent the whole day toiling in the vineyards when God’s just going to give the same wage to the guy who showed up and worked for an hour?
I’ve been trying something new with confirmation this year, and that’s to explain all the expectations of confirmation in terms of the radical grace of God.
So, our middle schoolers ask the perfectly reasonable question: “How many sermon notes do have to do to be confirmed?”
And I say, “You’re not going to do sermon notes because you have to, you’re going to do sermon notes because you want to.”
You’re not being good and doing good works because a certain number of goodness points are going to get you into heaven. You’re trying to be good and serve God and others because you are grateful that God gave you love and forgiveness freely, and you want to share the Good news of that grace with everyone and with everything you say and do.
And they’re like, “No, seriously, how many sermon notes do we have to do?”
Ten. Ten sermon notes.
The truth is that none of this is easy.
Believing that God loves us isn’t easy.
Believing that God loves our enemies isn’t easy.
Believing that God loves all of us equally, even when some of us devote our whole lives to doing good and others do not, that’s not easy.
What helps me when I read today’s Gospel lesson, is to think about Jesus’ parable and NOT to think of myself as one of the laborers who toiled all day and got a fair wage. I haven’t done nearly enough good in the world to qualify for that.
But I don’t think of myself as the laborer who showed up and put in an hour’s work and got a ridiculously generous wage, either.
I think I’m the laborer who showed up after the work in the vineyard was done and received a wage I did absolutely nothing to earn.
Jesus did the work in the vineyard.
Jesus’ work: Jesus’ birth, life, death and resurrection, that work is what earned the love, grace and forgiveness I’ve been given … the love, grace and forgiveness we’ve all been given, whether we can believe it or not.
And whether we can believe it or not, we can be thankful. We can give thanks to God for the amazing, unbelievable, totally illogical gift of grace and love. And, as we give thanks, we can share that gift with the world. We can go out to the vineyard, we can work, we can serve, we can make the world a better place. And we can do it with joy.