The church I serve, Lane Memorial United Methodist Church, recent launched our new website, which is, incidentally, based in WordPress.  Thus, it allows for a blog section there.  Since I primarily post my sermons, that website is a great place to host my blog.  I tried for a couple of weeks of posting to both this blog and the church website blog, and it was just too time consuming.

Therefore, I would like to direct you to the new location of Unapologetic Doxology:

I do not plan on removing this site, since there are some sites who have linked to some of my posts on this blog, and I would like to keep those blogs intact.

Further, given the appointment system, there will come a time where I will not be the pastor at Lane, and I will potentially return to this site for content.

For the few of you who subscribe to this blog, if you’d like to continue receiving email notifications about my blog posts, head over to my Blog on Lane UMC’s website.  There is a box, similar to the one on this site, that will allow you to subscribe.

Thanks to all who have read here, and I hope you will continue to read!  Having the blog as part of the church website may in fact increase the volume of my posts, so this could be a good or a bad thing, depending on how you look at it.

I hope you’ll check out my most recent post on the new site about Unstable Christians.




This post is coming out of order because I have a backlog of sermons to get posted.  I was away for three weeks on paternity leave, and this sermon is from my first Sunday back in the pulpit.  I’ll get the sermon from November 20 posted soon.

This story we hear about the parable of talents comes in the midst of us ramping up towards the end of the Christian year.  Next week is the Sunday where we celebrate Christ the King Sunday.  We celebrate the reign of Christ.  It is the last Sunday of our year, when we look forward to that full consummation of the kingdom of God, of which now we only receive glimpses.  Our Gospel for this morning is the third in a part four story series Matthew puts together when Jesus tells of the master or the bridegroom’s return, and what the servants or the bridesmaids have been up to in the mean time. [1]  The first story is of the faithful or unfaithful slave.  Then we hear the parable of the ten bridesmaids, where only five of the bridesmaids fill their lamps with oil and five do not, so that only five are ready when the bridegroom comes.  Then we have our passage for this morning, the parable of the talents.  The last story is the familiar reminder that whatever we do to the least of these, we do the same to Christ.

In each of these stories as we ramp up towards next Sunday, we are in the midst of the tension between the need to have an urgency about Christ’s return while at the same time recognizing that his return may not be for quite some time.  I imagine that Matthew would have been writing to some people who would have expected Jesus to come back by now.  Yet, here we sit two thousand years later still waiting.  We feel the tension between in the declaration that Christ has already triumphed over sin, even as we have not experienced fully the consummation of that victory.  We are a people who are caught in the middle.  These passages that we see put together by Matthew are all about what we should be up to in the midst of waiting.  Notice that Jesus says that the master comes back “after a long time.”

In this story, the parable of the talents, the master provides each of his slaves varying amounts of money.  A talent is a huge amount of money.  It was about fifteen years of earnings by a day laborer.[2]  Thus, to receive five talents was a crazy amount of money.  To receive two talents was still an unimaginable amount of money.  Even just one talent was an incredible sum.  Usually this is told as a parable about stewardship, which is not entirely incorrect.  The first two slaves are found faithful by their master because they took the money with which he entrusted them and doubled it.  Yet, the punishment of this last slave often seems to be especially harsh.

It’s not as if he blew his money on useless things.  It’s not as if he used the money on evil things.  He just didn’t do anything with it but bury it in the ground.  This probably seems wild to us to do this.  However, I found it even more troubling when I learned that to take your money and bury in the ground was actually regarded as a good security measure in the first century![3]  Yet, this slave is punished for what many would have regarded as a good idea.  Burying money in a hole certainly seems foolish to us now, yet to those who heard this parable it would not have struck them as so odd.  Why, then, does the master call this servant “wicked” and “lazy” for a practice that many would have considered good sense?

To make the story even more perplexing, we hear Jesus say that to “those who have much, more will be given, but to those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.”  This seems to go against all we have heard Jesus say previously about those with the least going first into the kingdom of God.  We know that just in the next few verses we will hear about “the least of these.”  Clearly, these words cannot simply be about money.  That would make Jesus contradict himself.  Rather, what we learned in the exchange between master and slave helps us interpret what Jesus means.

Perhaps the key comes in the way that the third slave views his master.  The slave describes his master as a “harsh man, reaping where you did not so, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid.”  This slave is motivated primarily by fear.[4] Is it the sign of a harsh master to entrust the slave with more than fifteen years of wages?  Rather than taking the one talent that the master has provided him and risking it, he figures it is better just to make sure that he holds on to what he already has. After, wouldn’t the master certainly be angrier if he had risked that one talent and he had lost it all?  Don’t forget that even one talent is still a lot of money!  His view of the master constricts and paralyzes this slave’s ability to act.  This master has clearly provided these different amounts of talents with the expectation that they will be risked.  He expects that they will be used, and that they will not remain with those to whom they are entrusted.

If this is true, then this parable is much more than a stewardship parable.  Stewardship tends to look back at what we have received, so that we can make sure that we take care of what has been provided.[5]  Yet, as we have seen, the placement of this story comes in the midst of Matthew directing our attention forward to the return of the master or bridegroom and what we have been up while he has been away.[6]  This is not just about what God has done for us and what we will do with it.  This is about what God has done for us and what God will do with us.  This not simply about taking care of what we have, this is about taking the abundance of God and risking it, sharing it, and realizing that our call is not simply to hold on to what we have been given, but because God’s gifts and God’s love is inexhaustible, that we are called to the kind of faithful living that might even appear reckless at times.  What it means is that our God is not a God who is about playing it safe.

When I think of this, I think of Mary, the sister of Martha, anointing Jesus’ feet with perfume.  Mary lavishes this perfume on Jesus’ feet, and Judas says, “what a waste of money!  We could have sold that perfume, and we could have given the money to the poor!”  Judas was not thinking that Mary had been a very good steward of that perfume.  Little did Judas realize that Jesus was receiving that perfume as anointing for his death.  Jesus blesses Mary’s lavishing.  He even blesses what seems like a waste to those who aren’t paying attention.

In the same way we are called to lavish God’s abundance out in the world.  As I have said many times before, to bring this abundance of God into the world and to risk it is against everything that we hear all the time because fear rules the day.  Fear rules in the market.  Fear even rules in many of our churches.   We find ourselves circling the wagons in order to protect what we have, when in fact such activity runs the risk of finding us burying our gifts in the ground instead of sharing them.  I don’t just mean this financially, though that is included.  As fears rise about the church’s supposed loss of “relevance,” there is a mentality to pull away from engagement with the world around us, circle our theological wagons, and to put all of our stock in the “pie in the sky.”

This parable, while directed to Jesus’ return is anything but pie in the sky.  It is focused on a life of sharing God’s love and gifts with the world right now while we await his return.  This parable, while directed to Christ’s return, is not about things getting worse and worse until Christ finally returns and destroys this wicked place.  It is about our work in the mean time showing glimpses of the fullness of a new heaven and a new earth. When Jesus invites those two slaves “into his joy” and in the previous parable when the bridesmaids are invited into the “wedding banquet,” these are all images of the new and new earth.  They are all images of the banquet we anticipate together when we come to the table for Holy Communion.

So when Jesus says those who have much, more will be given, what he is gesturing towards is the reality that God’s love and gifts, when shared, have the character of exploding and expanding.  When they are hoarded, when they are not risked, you might as well have less than nothing.  God has shared God’s love with us in such a way that are called to spill out into the world in worship and service.  If we hold that in, if we circle our wagons, if we get so concerned with taking care of what we already have, we’re burying it in the ground.  When that happens, the gifts don’t just sit dormant; rather, the life is actually choked out of them in our midst.  God’s love and God’s gifts are inexhaustible.  As one commentator suggests, “The greatest risk of all, it turns out, is not to risk anything, not to care deeply and profoundly enough about anything to invest deeply, to give your heart away and in the process risk everything.”[7]

The master calls the slave “lazy.”  Another way to translate that is slothful.  Typically we think of sloth as mere laziness.  However, sloth is something much deeper.  It’s not caring enough to do anything.  It’s being so paralyzed by not being able to engage anything fully that we don’t do anything.  The desert monks called it a “spiritual sadness,” the “noonday demon.”[8]  An example they gave was that a monk would be praying in his room, and he would suddenly feel the urge to go and visit his family.  Of course, visiting family is a good thing, except they are supposed to be praying.  To be slothful can be to be so engaged in so many different things or to be so be so reserved from doing anything fully that we don’t care deeply about anything.[9]  It is to be so paralyzed by fear and sadness that we don’t do anything at all.  That is the character of this slave, and it is in many ways the character of the world in which we live.

We are so distracted and pulled in so many different directions or so paralyzed by fear that we are unable to fully give ourselves and risk ourselves and our hearts in anything.  We are so busy going from iphone to ipad to computer to television to any other sources of media.  When we read an article on the internet there are links in the article that we follow to the point where we have forgotten what we were reading about in the first place.

We are so distracted, we are so fearful, that we won’t risk ourselves in anything.  In fact, I’ve noticed a trend in every church I have been in up to this point.  I haven’t been here long enough to see whether it is an issue at Lane, but in other churches I have served, seminary included, what I have noticed is an unwillingness for sign-up sheets.  People will not sign sign-up sheets anymore.  I don’t think it is a result of folks not wanting to participate.  I think it is good people who want to be conscientious.  We don’t want to say we’re going to be somewhere and then not show up.

I think that emerges out of a paralysis that comes from fear as well from being pulled in too many directions.  I don’t want to commit to this event because I have all of these other events I’m supposed to be at.  I don’t want to sign up now because I have so many things going on, that I may be forgetting something.  This is the sadness, this is the fear, this is what paralyzes us from giving ourselves to anything fully.  We end up burying ourselves in the ground, not risking ourselves.  And our faith, and our life, and our spirituality, and our relationship with Christ and with one another is choked out.

What we hope to do is to begin to draw ourselves back into that tension we have been discussing during Advent.  That is what Advent is.  It is that tension between celebrating and awaiting Christ’s coming the first time, but it is also focused on waiting for and anticipating Jesus’ return.  It is focused on that waiting and what we are supposed to be up to while we are waiting as we hang within the tension.  This parable shows us that we are supposed to be up so some things in the mean time.  That is why we are focusing during Advent on the idea that “Christmas is not your birthday.”

We are considering the question, “If we are anticipating celebrating Christ’s birth, then what would Christ want?”  Thus, each week during Advent we will draw ourselves to be challenged to focus on those whom Christ would have us serve, rather than on ourselves and our accumulation of “stuff” and allegiances and directions.  To focus on the angel tree.  To do a Society of St. Andrew Christmas donation card instead of an item that will just gather dust in a closet.  To bring in food for DAWN.  To do a Stop Hunger Now Event here at church.  To bring our gifts and our talents to be people who risk sharing the abundance of God in a world that is all about scarcity.  I ask you to ask yourself as you leave here today, what are the ways I am ruled by fear or the ways I am pulled in too many directions, so that I am not able to fully give myself to the kind of life to which Christ calls me?

[1] Mark Douglas, “Theological Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year A, vol. 4, (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox, 2011), pp. 308.

[2] Lindsay P. Armstrong, “Homiletical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year A, vol. 4, (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox, 2011), p. 311.

[3] Thomas D. Stegman, “Exegetical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year A, vol. 4, (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox, 2011), p. 311.

[4] Stegman, “Exegetical Perspective,” p. 313.

[5] Douglas, “Theological Perspective,” pp. 308 and 310.

[6] Douglas, “Theological Perspective,” p. 308.

[7] John M. Buchanan, “Pastoral Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year A, vol. 4, (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox, 2011), p. 310.

[8] Jeffrey A. Vogel, “The Speed of Sloth:  Reconsidering the Sin of Acedia,” Pro Ecclesia, Vol., 18, No. 1, (Lanham, MD:  Rowan and Littlefield Publishers, 2009), p. 59.

[9] Vogel, “The Speed of Sloth,” p. 54.

The link to the article read, “At Occupy Berkley, Beat Poets Has a New Meaning.”[1]  I was drawn in.  Robert Hass, the former Poet Laureate of the United States and professor at University of California, Berkley was the author of the article.  Hass describes the encounter between police and the students and faculty at UC Berkley who had joined the “Occupy” movement protest.  UC Berkley is usually associated with “liberal hippies.” One conjures images in his or her mind of the flower children placing daisies in the barrel of a soldier’s gun.   The scene Hass describes in article looks very different from this image. Hass had heard from a colleague that earlier in the day the police had moved into to take down the Occupy tents, and that they had been “beaten viciously.”  Hass couldn’t believe this, certainly not at UC Berkely.  So, when he heard the police had returned, he and his wife went to campus.   I read on, and I’ll share with you some of what I read:

My wife was speaking to the young deputies about the importance of nonviolence and explaining why they should be at home reading to their children, when one of the deputies reached out, shoved my wife in the chest and knocked her down….My wife bounced nimbly to her feet. I tripped and almost fell over her trying to help her up, and at that moment the deputies in the cordon surged forward and, using their clubs as battering rams, began to hammer at the bodies of the line of students. It was stunning to see. They swung hard into their chests and bellies. Particularly shocking to me — it must be a generational reaction — was that they assaulted both the young men and the young women with the same indiscriminate force. If the students turned away, they pounded their ribs. If they turned further away to escape, they hit them on their spines…

My ribs didn’t hurt very badly until the next day and then it hurt to laugh, so I skipped the gym for a couple of mornings, and I was a little disappointed that the bruises weren’t slightly more dramatic. It argued either for a kind of restraint or a kind of low cunning in the training of the police. They had hit me hard enough so that I was sore for days, but not hard enough to leave much of a mark. I wasn’t so badly off. One of my colleagues, also a poet, Geoffrey O’Brien, had a broken rib. Another colleague, Celeste Langan, a Wordsworth scholar, got dragged across the grass by her hair when she presented herself for arrest.[2]

I was…I am…horrified.  Regardless of what you may think of the Occupy Movement, this is horrifying.  If you think they are a group of concerned citizens getting together to take action and protest, this is horrifying.  If you think they are a group of riff raff who have no business occupying these places, this is horrifying. What has happened to us, I thought, when peaceful protesters receive beatings?  What has happened to us, I thought, when a Wordsworth scholar is dragged across the grass by her hair?

Robert Hass’ account, and similar accounts and videos, of persons being viciously beaten in the midst of peaceful protest are almost too much to take at times.   It is important as I say this to not demonize all police offers in the midst of this, as many of them are in difficult positions.  Yet, Hass’ account is still frightening and disturbing.  As we struggle with lost jobs, as we struggle with broken families, as we struggle with turmoil and violence in the world, as we struggle with injustice, as we struggle with fear of those who are different than us, it is almost too much to take.  It is overwhelming.  It is often wholly depressing.  And, as people of faith, we begin to wonder, “When is God going to do something about this?”

That is how Isaiah felt, I think, when he wrote the lament we encounter this morning.  Isaiah is in the midst of a lament that began back in chapter 63, verse 7.  Isaiah has been recounting the deeds that God has done in the past, mighty deeds, such as the Exodus, and parting the waters of the Red Sea for the Israelites to pass through.   As Isaiah writes, the Israelites are a people who have been conquered by Babylon.  The temple is in ruins.[3]  “Where,” Isaiah asks, “is this Exodus God?”  “Where is this sea-parting God?” And so Isaiah cries out,

O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,
so that the mountains would quake at your presence—
as when fire kindles brushwood
and the fire causes water to boil—
to make your name known to your adversaries,
so that the nations might tremble at your presence!

 Yet, this God seems nowhere to be found. This God who “did awesome deeds we did not expect” is hidden.  Isaiah, and the people of Israel feel abandoned.  God has apparently hidden God’s self from them as a result of their sin.  But Isaiah isn’t going to let God off of the hook that easily.  He goes so far as to say that God’s hiding has actually caused Israel to transgress further!  “Because you were angry, and we sinned; because you hid yourself we transgressed” (64.5) Isaiah is essentially saying, “I know that we have sinned, but we are inextricably bound to one another.  We have sinned more because You have hidden Yourself!” This is not to blame God or let Israel off the hook; rather, it is to move God to action for the sake of God’s chosen people.[4]

As I read that article, I got that kind of “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down!” feeling for which Isaiah cries out.  Such frustration.  Such sadness.  Welcome to Advent.  Advent begins with a lament.  It begins with a cry.  It begins with a sober look at the state of things.   It doesn’t begin with Black Friday.  It doesn’t begin with the easy listening stations playing Christmas music.  It doesn’t even begin with Thanksgiving.  It begins with a cry of lament.  Why, you may ask, Alan do you think it is your job to constantly try to bum us out when we are trying to enjoy the holidays?  I don’t think actually believe that is my job.  My job, rather, is one of pointing.  It is of pointing to where God would direct our hearts during Advent.  And to begin with, God draws us to lament.  To begin with lament is not to begin a long series of Advent bummers.  Rather, to begin with lament is to begin at the beginning.

Lamenting is different than complaining.  If you look at the Psalms of lament, or the laments in the prophets such as the one we encounter this morning they are not simply complaining.  It is not simply a whining for God to solve all of our problems.  As biblical scholar Walter Bruggemann points out, lament is the beginning of hope.[5]  We can only hope when we have a clear sense of what is wrong.  We can only hope when we have properly lamented the brokenness that we see all around us.  We can only be clear about that for which we hope when we are clear about what has broken and hearts and drawn us to lament.

We can only know that for which we are hoping when we have seen so clearly what is wrong that we begin to demand that God do something about it.  A lament that moves towards hope is different that complaining that leads to wishing.  The difference between a wish and a hope is that hope is certain.  This is Isaiah’s disposition.  He recounts the deeds that God has done because he is certain that God is still there.  Indeed, even as Isaiah laments God’s absence, he returns to the sureness that God has not finally abandoned Israel:

There is no one who calls on your name,
or attempts to take hold of you;
for you have hidden your face from us,
and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity.
Yet, O Lord, you are our Father;
we are the clay, and you are our potter;
we are all the work of your hand.
Do not be exceedingly angry, O Lord,
and do not remember iniquity for ever.
Now consider, we are all your people.

Even as Isaiah laments God’s hiddenness, notice the intimate imagery he continues to ascribe to God.  He calls God Father.  He calls God the pottery, and Israel are the clay.  The people of Israel and God still belong to each other because they are in a familial relationship.  They are tied to each because God gives them their shape as a people.[6]  While apparently hidden, God is still present.  Even though Isaiah cannot perceive God’s presence, he speaks with hopeful words because he is certain that God will still act.

This is Advent.  Only after have we had perceived the depth of the brokenness, the depth of the sins personal and structural, the depth of our needs, can we perceive clearly the hope we are approaching in Advent.  Christ did not come to make things more awesome in a world that was already awesome.  Christ entered into a world where the poor need good news, captives need release, the blind need sight, and the oppressed need freedom.  And, as we will see, he entered into that world in poverty and a refugee from genocide at the hands of his government.  Christ came into a world that had been crying out for him for hundreds of years to be God’s decisive answer to the brokenness that the has a seeming strangle hold on the cosmos.

And so, in Advent, we enter into the discipline of patience.  We enter into the practice of looking around at the world, at all the places and people that desperately cry out for God to tear open the heavens, and we join them in solidarity.  To wait in this way is not to sit on our hands and do nothing.  Rather, as one commentator says, “It is a tensive waiting charge with the pathos of lament and conjoined with the joy of remembrance and the anticipation of praise.”[7]  To wait during Advent is not to bum ourselves out, but it is let the anticipation of Christ’s coming to swell in our hearts and minds as we prepare the way of the Lord.  It is, a “passionate patience.”[8]  And as we enter into the disciple of passionate patience, we will resist the temptation around us to look at ourselves and what we think we deserve for Christmas, and we will look outward to others, who are feeling that “God would tear open the heavens and help us” kind of feeling.  This week through the angel tree. Next week through Society of St. Andrew alternative gift-giving, the next week through bringing food for DAWN, and the final week of Advent through packing meals with Stop Hunger Now.

The hope, as we move forward in our passionate patience, is that we will encounter more clearly the one through whom God tears open the heavens.  Except that we don’t see lightning and shaking of mountains.[9]   Rather, the tearing of the heavens comes as the God of the universe takes on flesh and blood and becomes one of us.  The God who Isaiah sees as hidden remains hidden because not all recognize the God who has become one of us so that we might become like God.  This one who came, who did not “do something” about was wrong with the world through violence.  Rather, he “did something” by serving and offering himself up to die.

This is the one who reveals God’s power that is made perfect in weakness is the one in whom our hope certainly rests.  This one who invites both police and protesters into one family.  It is this one for whom we wait to come again.  It is this one who we heard about last week who makes it clear what our conduct should look like in the mean time.  It is he who tells us in our Gospel passage to “Stay awake!” as we swell with that passionate patience for the culmination of the kingdom.  And so, regardless of what you think about the Occupy movement, I invite you in these moments to Occupy Advent.

[1] Robert Hass, “Poet-Bashing Police” New York Times Online, cited. Nov. 27, 2011.

[2] Ibid.

[3] William P. Brown, “Exegetical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 1,  (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox, 2011), p. 3.

[4] Brown, “Exegetical Perspective,” p. 7.

[5] Walter Brueggemann, The Message of the Psalms, (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress Press, 1984), p. 52

[6] Brown, “Exegetical Perspective,” p. 7.

[7] Brown, “Exegetical Perspective,” p. 5.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Scott Bader-Saye, “Theological Perspective, “ Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 1, (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox, 2011) pp. 5-6.

You may or may not be aware of a large conversation swirling around The United Methodist Church these days.  It’s no secret that The United Methodist Church, like many of the other mainline Protestant denominations, is declining.

Well, at least in the United States it is declining.

For years and years now, the conversation about what is wrong and what can be done has gone on and on.  The most recent effort to deal with this issue has been the Call to Action Steering Team, organized by Council of Bishops and the Connectional Table of the United Methodist Church.  This task force has looked across the connection, and they have tried to zero in on signs of “vital congregations” in order to help other churches perhaps figure out why they may or may not be doing well.

Not surprisingly, much of the conversation has revolved around numbers.  Now, it isn’t that numbers aren’t important.  We keep track of the number of folks who attend here each week.  If we notice a dip or an increase, we try to analyze that data.  However, many who are watching the conversation in our beloved United Methodist Church are beginning to wonder not whether we should measure.  They are wondering whether we are measuring the right things.  As a pastor, I have been trying to keep up with this conversation closely because it will have real effects on the life of local churches.  That is why I was particularly interested to see an article in the United Methodist Reporter from Bishop Joe Pennel, who was our previous Bishop here in VA.

Bishop Pennel is the first Bishop I remember as “my bishop.”  He was the bishop who prayed with me when I confirmed my call to ordained ministry at the end of the Ordination service at Annual Conference.  I found him to be a wise and generous bishop.  In short, when he speaks, I make sure I listen.  The title of his article was “Better ways to measure churches.”[1] I excitedly read through his article, and the thing that struck me more than anything was his last paragraph:

I am now 72 years old and I have been a pastor since 1959. As I look back over my years as a pastor I find myself wishing that I had organized my congregations around worship, searching the Scriptures, more Holy Communion, deeds of mercy and kindness, prayer, meditation and Christian fellowship. I now see that these are the most important means of Grace.[2]

The confessional nature of his article bowled me over.  This man, this pastor, this Bishop, was basically saying that he was as caught up as anyone else in “numerical growth and institutional maintenance,” but as he reflects on his ministry, he wonders if that was always the best thing.  Instead, he finds himself suggesting there might be other things worth measuring in local congregations.  Worship.  Reading Scripture together and individually.   Taking Holy Communion more frequently than once a month.  More deeds of mercy and kindness.  More prayer and meditation.  More Christian fellowship.  This is radically different than much of the numbers-focused discussion around our church.

What gives?  The church is declining in the US, and we are going to find ourselves in big trouble.  How is taking Holy Communion more often going to do us any good?  How is meditation going to take us to the next level?  Deeds of mercy and kindness sound well and good, but what are we going to do about all this decline?  Are we just going to stick our heads in the sand and let the church fall to pieces?  I don’t think Bishop Pennel is suddenly suggesting that numbers don’t matter.   Rather, Bishop Pennel is gesturing towards the church’s difference.  The church is different than any other organization, business, or civic group.

To put it another way, I think that Bishop Pennel is gesturing towards the church’s existence as both vineyard and wedding banquet.

For the last two weeks, Jesus has been in conversation with the chief priests and elders.  For these last two weeks, Jesus tells them parables including vineyards.  The conversation has been amping up.  In each case, Jesus pronounces judgment on the chief priests and elders because they have failed to work in the vineyard.  In the first case, the tax collectors and the prostitutes will go into the kingdom of God ahead of them because they were to sons who said they would work in the vineyard, but then changed their minds.  The insiders find themselves behind the presumed outsiders.

In the second case, Jesus describes the way that the vineyard will be taken from them and given to people who produce fruits of the kingdom.  In fact, the chief priests find themselves held accountable “for Israel’s history of rejecting the prophetic bears of [God’s] invitations” to begin bearing fruit in the vineyard.[3]  The vineyard will be taken away from the insiders and given to the outsiders because the insiders aren’t producing fruit.  There has been a lot of talk of fruit these last two weeks.

This is often the word we use in the church for accountability:  fruit.  And this is not incorrect.  We should be bearing fruit.  It is clear that Jesus expects us to bear fruit.  There is no question about this.  So at first, we might think, “The Call to Action is right on.  We need to get to work in the vineyard.”  And that aspect of the Call to Action makes a lot of sense.  I don’t want to sound like I am completely bashing the Call to Action, and I don’t think Bishop Pennel is either. United Methodists have ridden the wave of cultural familiarity and cultural accommodation for long enough.  It is, indeed, time to get to work on some things.

Then all of a sudden Jesus changes the image to a wedding banquet.

How do you move from a vineyard to wedding banquet?  How do you go from work to partying?  Parties don’t produce a lot of fruit.  They don’t get much accomplished.  They seem sort of like a waste of time when there is good work to do out in those vineyards, right?  Yet, Jesus finishes his debate with the Pharisees comparing the kingdom of heaven to a wedding banquet.  This wedding banquet parable rehearses familiar themes from the last two weeks, amplifying them to a fever pitch.

A king throws a wedding banquet for his son.  He sends out slaves to invite guests to the banquet.  The guests won’t come.  He tries again.  Some ignore the invite.  Some go work on their farms or businesses.  Some invitees even get openly hostile and kill the slaves who are inviting them to this banquet.  Jesus is again rehearsing the history of the prophets and Israel’s rejection of the prophets.  The king then sends more slaves, this time to “invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet (Matthew 22.9).”   The slaves invite everyone they find, the good and the bad, and so the wedding hall is filled with guests.

Again, the presumed outsiders, the good and the bad, are now found to be occupying the space of the insiders.  What is the criteria in the banquet?  What is the measure of who gets in and who doesn’t?  Where is the fruit of those the slaves gather on the street?  They are folks who simply respond to the invitation of the king’s servants.  They are both the good and the bad.  The only criteria, it seems, is a willingness to respond to the King’s call to come to the wedding banquet of his son.  The distinction is between those who rejected the invitation, and those who accepted it.  No fruit is mentioned.

The next piece of the parable is even more confusing.  The king comes in and noticed someone isn’t wearing a wedding robe.  In response, the king promptly throws this guest into the outer darkness?  What?!  Wait a second, so this person, who would have had no way to prepare for the banquet, is suddenly thrown out because he or she isn’t dressed right?  Even if we interpret the gown to be righteousness or the new life we put on in baptism, it still strikes me as strange.[4]  How would they have been prepared?  Yet, somehow they aren’t found to be appropriate to the gathering.  How do we measure that?

The key is the many are called, but few are chosen.  Lots of people will show up to this banquet, but not everyone is chosen.  Yet even that feels confusing, doesn’t it?  All of these people who didn’t expect to be called to this banquet show up, yet there is still some element of chosenness?  Which is it?  Do they respond to the invitation?  Or are they chosen?  If this distinction is between those who rejected the invitation and those accepted it, why is chosenness still a factor?  What is the measure here?

The wedding banquet suggests that there is simply more than just measuring fruit at play.  It is simply more than what we do or do not do.  The wedding banquet is what theologians call an eschatological image.  You get one gold star today for learning the word “eschatological.”  You get two if you learn how to say it!  “Eschatological” means the “final things.”  The wedding banquet is an image of the banquet that we will enjoy forever with Christ and the communion of saints.  Jesus has moved the conversation from the past and pulled back the view to look across all of history.  And in this view, the work of the kingdom is crucial, but there is an element even more crucial than work.  It is grace.  The tension, especially the tension that we sense in this one person who isn’t dressed right for the banquet is a tension that has existed across the history of the church.  The tension is between being called and responding to the call.

Some elements of the church focus on the call.  God is sovereign, and so God knows and chooses those who will be part of God’s covenant community.  The response to this image is that when we recognize ourselves as one of those people is obedience.[5]  Then, on the other side of the spectrum there are those traditions that focus on the response.  We must accept the call for it be effective.  Our free will and agency is crucial to our decision.  Think of the hymn, “I have decided to follow Jesus!  No turning back!”  We march around the sanctuary singing, “I have decided to follow Jesus!”  So which is it?  The reason this tension cannot be resolved is that the answer is both.  It is two sides of the same coin.  It is iridescent grace.

Iridescence is the property of certain surfaces to change color when looked at from different angles or when the illumination of the surface is changed.  This is popular on some cars.  When you look at the car from one direction, it looks green.  When you look at the car from another direction it is blue.  Which is it?  Blue or green?  This is the tension we feel in this passage.  Did God choose me as a follower?  Yes!  Did I use my free will to freely accept that invitation?  Yes!  John Wesley fiercely held to the notion that “is free in all, and free for all.”[6]   Wesley accounted for the tension we are feeling through his description of “prevenient grace,” the grace that comes before.

Prevenient grace is that grace that God offers us, it is that grace that works in us even before we even recognizing it. [7]  Without that grace, we wouldn’t even know how much trouble we are in.  Yet, we must respond to that grace, even as we understand that the grace is what frees us to respond in the first place! Does your head hurt yet?  Put different, when we look at it from one angle, we see God’s sovereign choice in calling us.  When we look at it from another angle, we see that way in which God wants us to respond to that invitation.  It is iridescent grace.  It depends on the angle at which you look at it!

The wedding banquet image is a vision and glimpse of the banquet that we will enjoy when there is a new heaven and new earth.  In it we see God at work in ways we cannot imagine, ways that God invites us and through grace enables our free response to God’s invitation.  The banquet is for the bridegroom, who is Christ to whom the church, to whom we as members of the church, are bound.  Were we chosen?  Yes.  Did we freely respond to the invitation?  Yes.  Further, the good and the bad in the parable remind us that we can’t judge or know precisely now what is each other’s hearts.  It is only the one who gives the banquet who knows this, and it is only through grace that we are even at the banquet in the first place.  It reminds us that even as we measure fruit, we recognize that our measurements are not eternal judgments.

Where does this leave us with Bishop Pennel’s article?  Is the Call to Action all wrong?  Should we resist all of it?  Is it not of God?  I don’t think Bishop Pennel thinks that.  I don’t think that.  Fruit is important.  Fruit is necessary.  There are valuable elements of the Call to Action.  There are times when it is appropriate to measure our work.  Yet, the banquet is a remind that at the end of the day is not squarely on our shoulders.  Rather it is on the shoulders of the one who bore a cross for us.  It is on the shoulders of the body we find ourselves in through our baptisms.  It is on the shoulders of Jesus Christ, who is ultimately the head of the church.  Our work, our participation, our fruit only comes through the often surprisingly, subversive, and wild nature of God’s grace.

When we focus only on our numerical growth, perhaps we find ourselves in danger of making numerical growth our idol to which we sacrifice all of who we are as church in the name of growth.  We turn our churches into competing McDonald’s franchises rather than glimpses of the heavenly banquet.  We get so focused on the work, on best practices, on being effective, on fruit, on keeping up with other churches that we forget that the church doesn’t belong to us. It belongs to God because we are invited, shaped, and formed into the body of Christ by the work of the Holy Spirit.  The prevalence of the Call to Action’s work, the fact that it seems to be where a large share of he church is throwing its weight is what is unnerving because it places all that weight on us in a way that forgets the unmerited gifted nature of our membership in this body.

The unmerited, gifted, nature of our membership in this body is different than any other membership we encounter.  It is what makes it different than governments, civic clubs, country clubs, or any other associations we find ourselves.  What Bishop Pennel is describing is a fuller vision of the church that focuses more deeply on the banquet nature of the church, which we only see in glimpses in the here and now.  He is describing the practices of the church where those glimpses have been found throughout the life of God’s people.  In worship, prayer, and Scripture.  Most especially Holy Communion, which is actually a participation in the future banquet we will enjoy with the communion of saints and Jesus.  When we come to the table, we dine with whole church, just not the church we can see.  When we come to the table, we learn not to depend only on what we can do because it is in the normal elements of wine and bread that we receive grace.  Grace we don’t deserve.  Yet grace nonetheless.

For Bishop Pennel to wish that he had organized his congregations around more Holy Communion is powerful because it is to suggest that it matters.  It matters even though it is a gift we receive.  It is radical because he is suggesting that if we want to see revival in the church, then we need to avail ourselves of the means of grace, of which John Wesley called Holy Communion the “grand channel.”[8]  When we find ourselves focused on other things and forgetting about worship, scripture, praying, and the sacraments, we are in danger of running aground.

What about fruit?  Fruit is important.  Notice that Bishop Pennel mentions deeds of kindness and mercy.  He is naming that when the church organizes itself around the grace offered in the banquet, we are nourished to get back to work in the vineyard.  That vineyard work is crucial.  There are fruits of the kingdom to be borne.  Yet, it isn’t all vineyards.  It is, principally, first, and foremost, and party.  A banquet.  A celebration.  And it is one we didn’t expect to find ourselves invited to.

Yet, here we are, in this sanctuary.  Celebrating coming back into our space of worship.  Our place of party.  Our place of celebration.  Our place of the Holy Feast where it is truly Christ who meets us in the table of Holy Communion.  And when you go to a good celebration, and good party, a good banquet, we don’t do a lot of measuring.  Rather, we tell stories about our experience.  It is qualitative rather than quantitative information that we share when we go out into the world.  When you describe our service today and the excitement we have shared, you will likely tell it as a story, rather than as raw numerical data!

What I think Bishop Pennel is suggesting is that when we take care of our spiritual practices, the numbers take care of themselves.  When we avail ourselves of all the means of grace at the banquet, the vineyard work pours out uncontrollably.  But we actually have to take care of it.  We actually have to focus on the practices and not pretend that they are important to us simply, so that we don’t have to change or do anything new.  It doesn’t mean that we don’t need to measure anything.  Rather, we may just need to also keep track of some other things.  Like how often we are taking communion.  How many hours we spend reading scripture.  How much time and money we spend in mission and ministry in our community and in our world.

Were we chosen for this banquet?  Yes.  Did we freely decide to come to this banquet?  Yes.  It is iridescent.  It depends on how you look at it. Yet, no matter which we way look at it, we are thankful for the party.  We are thankful for the celebration.  It is a celebration where we feast on the Word as it is read, proclaimed at the lectern and pulpit, and we eat and drink it at the table.  And then we find ourselves in the streets, inviting more people who don’t think they belong to the feast, whether they are good or bad.  What would the numbers look like if that really happened?

[1] Bishop Joe E. Pennel, “Better Ways to Measure Churches,” in United Methodist Reporter,, cited October 9, 2011.

[2] Pennel, “Better Ways,” cited October 9, 2011.

[3] Richard E. Spalding, “Pastoral Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year A, vol. 4, (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox, 2011) p. 164.

[4] Susan Eastman, “Exegetical Perspective,” Feasting, p. 167.

[5] Andrew Purves, “Theological Perspective,” Feasting, p. 164.

[6] John Wesley, “Free Grace,” §2, in John Wesley’s Sermons:  An Anthology, ed. By Albert C. Outler and Richard P. Heitzenrater, (Nashville:  Abingdon, 1991),  p. 50.  Also available online.

[7] “[A]ll the ‘drawings’ of ‘the Father’, the desires after God, which if we yield to them, increase more and more; all that ‘light’ wherewith the Son of God ‘enlighteneth everyone that cometh into the world,’ showing every [person] ‘to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with [his or her] God.” John Wesley, “The Scripture Way of Salvation” §I.2, in John Wesley’s Sermons:  An Anthology, ed. By Albert C. Outler and Richard P. Heitzenrater, (Nashville:  Abingdon, 1991),  p. 373.  Also available online.

[8] John Wesley, “Sermon on the Mount VI,” III.11 in John Wesley’s Sermons:  An Anthology, ed. By Albert C. Outler and Richard P. Heitzenrater, (Nashville:  Abingdon, 1991),  p. 232.  Also available online.

Four or five months ago I checked my twitter account, like I do most everyday. In case you don’t know what twitter is, it is a social media tool, in which you can post short, 140 character messages. People use twitter for many different things. I use it to share articles with friends and keep up with info about my favorite sports teams. One of the features of twitter is “trends.” Twitter shows the top ten words or phrases that are being posted from around the world. On this particular day, I was struck by name “Rob Bell” in the trends list. Rob Bell is a pretty well known pastor and writer in some circles, and I was surprised to see a pastor’s name on the list.

Twitter trends often fall to the lowest common denominator. I feared the worst. Usually when a pastor’s name shows up it is because he or she has been caught doing something inappropriate. Instead, I was surprised to find that a firestorm of an argument had ensued among Christians and non-Christians alike.

Apparently, this argument revolved around a video Rob Bell posted on his website, advertising a forthcoming book of his called Love Wins. In this book, Bell struggles with a subject that Christians have struggled over throughout the history of the church: who’s in and who’s out, especially in an eternal sort of way. While not getting us too lost in the struggle within the book, Bell’s book tends to err on the side of grace in such matters. What was surprising to me was not Bell’s struggle, since such questions are part of the life of most every Christian. What surprised me was the reaction and the argument that lasted all weekend on long on twitter. And all of it started with three words: “Farewell Rob Bell.”

Another well-known pastor had posted these words along with his thoughts on why Rob Bell had gone off the theological and biblical reservation. Tons of other people jumped in, defending or condemning Bell. It was fascinating to see so may people openly wrestling with a theological and biblical challenge on a social media that is often full of folks proclaiming their love of Justin Bieber. But it was also troubling. It was troubling to watch fellow Christians so quickly jump on their brother. To declare him “out” so quickly, when Bell’s book had not even come out yet!

They were convinced that he had done away with hell, that he had done away with God’s justice. They were convinced that Rob Bell had forsaken his calling as a pastor because he was surely going to lead people astray. Yet, as I watched the conversation proceed and even added some of my own comments, the parable Jesus tells in our Gospel lesson this morning crept into my mind.

This landowner goes out early in the morning to hire laborers to work in his vineyard. He and the laborers agree on a wage. Oddly, the landowner heads back out several other times during the day, and he agrees to pay more laborers “whatever is right” for their work. Even more curiously, he heads out at about five o’clock, which would have left an hour of daylight for work. He hires these laborers as well. At the end of the day, the landowner asks his manager to pay the laborers. The manager is to begin with the last, and work his way back to the first.

The order of payment is important to set up the scene. One wonders what the laborers hired early in the morning were thinking. The guys hired later in the day were receiving what they were promised. Perhaps the landowner was going to give them more? This would not be an unreasonable thought, right? This landowner appears to be a fair guy. We sense their shock when the guys hired later than them get the exact same wage.

I love the way Jesus describes their reaction. They “grumbled against the landowner.” They say, “These last only worked one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day of the scorching heat!” Understandably, what they want is justice. They worked harder and longer than anyone else. How dare this landowner give the same wages to these other guys?

This is the image that came into my mind when I saw all the people who were angry with Rob Bell. For all of their biblical and theological concerns, for all of their comments about Bell leading the flock astray, for all of their claims about upholding God’s justice…at the end of the day I just get the feeling that what really makes some folks demand that somebody, someone has to get punished, is that they have been doing all this work, and it just isn’t fair that unexpected folks might turn up in heaven.

The landowner replies to the grumbling, reminding the early laborers that his agreement with them for the daily wage was still fair because that is what they agreed on. Further, the landowner asserts his right to do what he wants with what belongs to him. He is allowed to be as generous as he wants to be. Jesus finishes the parable with “the last will be first, and the first will be last.” Jesus’ words here don’t definitively settle the debate between Rob Bell and those who don’t buy what he was selling. The conversation has been one that has existed throughout the Christian tradition.

However, what Jesus is making clear here is that as much time as we spend in our minds lining up who deserves to be at the end of line, and who will be at the front of the line for whatever reason, at the end of the day, we will be surprised with who we find. Folks we did not imagine might be walking before us. It is a guarantee that there will be folks that we didn’t expect because we aren’t God. That is what I kept wanting to say to all those folks who were jumping on Rob Bell. “Have you read the parable of the laborers in the vineyard lately? There are going to be folks who are subjects of the Kingdom of God that we never could have dreamed of!” God can do what God wants to. It is up to us do what we are supposed to, to be the workers in the vineyard. By the way, this worked out famously for Rob Bell because everyone wanted to read his book so badly that he released it early, and I’m sure he made a ton of money on it! Everyone was so ready to read the book and figure out whether they could praise or condemn him.

In the parable of the vineyard, Jesus sets us within the tension between God’s justice and God’s grace. It is the tension between the need for our responsiveness to God’s grace and the reality that God’s grace is available and free to all people. When we get caught up in all of this work that we are doing and what we deserve, we lose that tension. We lose sight of the reality that we are always working in grateful response to God’s graceful invitation. Grace means that wear are going to be put to work, but that at the end of the day it is a gift. We lose sight of the reality that the gift is the labor itself because God is growing us into the kind of people we were created to be.[1] The gift to the guys at the beginning of the day is that they got to do good work all day. The gift to the guys at the end of the day is that they didn’t have anything to do, but they still got called in to be laborers.

It is not work that we do in order for some pie-in-the-sky reward. Rather, it is our share in a kingdom that is already breaking into this world as we speak.[2] It is a kingdom we receive glimpses of when our children lead us in worship, when we head out on mission trips, when each and every habitat house goes up, and even now, now in such a place when we worship the living God in this place. This is the profound gift of who we are as Christians.

One thing that has struck me over the past few weeks is how often the posture in which we find ourselves as a response to the Gospel is utter and profound gratitude. Gratitude to be called in as laborers. Gratitude that comes as we stand face to face with this grace that comes to us, doesn’t leave us the same, and enables us to be instruments of God’s shaping of a new kind of people in the world, one that will bless others as a sign of God’s love in the world. The gift as well as the reward comes in the midst of the labors we are called to carry out, not in some far off place. This is not about what we deserve, but it is what we have been given!

As I considered this reality this week, I realized that we don’t just do this with regard to eternal considerations. You know that Consecration Sunday is next week, so I’m supposed to say something about stewardship. I supposed to find something good to say about it. And I realized that we do this laborer stuff with stewardship. Because we get focused on what we deserve in response to our labor, when in fact that labor is the gift. The giving, the act of returning is the gift. But it’s difficult because I’m supposed to say something about stewardship. It is uncomfortable to talk about stewardship.

No matter how many times someone tells us that Jesus talks about money more than anything else. Every time we hear that, we say, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, okay.” But then we sort of let it go. Then, as I considered this scripture, I started to get a sense of part of why it makes us uncomfortable. Stewardship is uncomfortable to us because it goes against the grain of how we are taught to think about money. We are told that our money is ours. We are told that money is the power we get when we invest it in something. We are told that money is private. We are told that there is not enough money, and so we better get as much of it as we can, and we better hold on to it tightly.

Yet, life in the body of Christ turns this understanding on its head. The very word “stewardship” sounds strange in the midst of what we usually hear about money. Instead of our money belonging to us, we are told that all we have comes from God. It is to name that isn’t ours. It’s God’s. We are told first and foremost that rather than accumulating power through wealth, power is instead made perfect in weakness (2 Corinthians 12.9). We are told that instead of our money being a private matter that in the early church followers of Jesus Christ did not hold on tightly to their money, but that “all who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need” (Acts 2:44-45). We are told that there is enough, and we are simply told to ask not for everything, but for our daily bread.

This doesn’t just feel counter-cultural. It grates up against everything we have ever heard about money. It shatters our egos that are often shaped around what we own. It shifts our vision of what our contributions to the church look like because it becomes a sign of our willingness to be the answers to the prayers of another. It contributes to our understanding that nothing we have belongs to us. It shatters this vision that we have that because done all this work, because we have given all this stuff, that somehow entitles us to something else besides the grace that we don’t deserve in the first place.

This is thin ice…because I’m supposed to get up here and say that, and then I’m also supposed to say, “But please don’t get too mad at me. We still need you to give some money!” That is the precarious place in which we stand. We need that money, but it cannot be something that we lord over one another. Rather, it is a gift. The giving is the gift! This sharing is the gift. The growing, making, and sharing of the bread is the gift. That is the reward. We are, in those moments, investing in being the answers to the prayers of another.

Often as United Methodists we complain about our apportionments, but even they are a gift. They are a system in which we can easily become the answers to the prayers of another through our gifts! The offering is always after our prayers because what we put in the plate is a sign of our unity with one another, and with Christians all over the world, for whom we have prayed. The money we put in the plate, while a most of it stays in the local church, also goes to churches, missionaries, the boards and agencies of the church, our episcopal leadership, and all other manner of the work of the United Methodist Church all around the world!

I got to see first hand the many different ways that we are able to reach across the globe in order to be the answers to the prayers of another just this week. I was in Chicago because I serve as a board member of the General Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns. I got to see the amazing ways that we work towards the unity of the church all over the world! The gift is in the giving.

Let me try to give you a vision of what I mean by this. In the worship service, notice where the offering comes. It comes after the prayers of the people. What do we when we get together for worship? We hear what God has done. We hear the scripture proclaimed and explained. We hear what God has been up to. And then, in the prayers of the people, we ask God for an encore.[3] You know what an encore is, right? A band or orchestra or some other performing is playing…I like to think of when rock bands are playing it. It is in some ways a silly ritual at concerts, where the band will say, “All right, thanks! Good night!” Then they will go off the stage…but we all know that after about five minutes, if we clap loud enough, if we chant their name, if we chant “encore, encore, encore!!!” finally the band runs back out onto the stage. “We’re going to do a couple more songs!”

Maybe the Styx encore wasn't such a good idea.

But that’s the part of the concert where they play all the stuff you’ve been waiting to hear. Except for one time I went to see Styx, and they didn’t play Mr. Roboto, and I was furious about it. That was really the only song I wanted to hear. But usually that is where the band plays the best part. And so we get together, and we hear the Word, we hear the sermon, we hear what God has done. And we say, “God, we have heard what you have done, and we want more! We want an encore. We want to see more. We want you to be a part of our lives, present with people who are hurting, present with our homebound folks, present with our missionaries, to be present with those on our prayer list, and present with us!” And then, after we have done that, we take the offering.

What we’re doing when we put that check, that envelope, or that cash in the plate, we are saying to God and to each other, “I want to be a part of this. I want to be a part of God’s encore. I want to be a part of the labor. I want to be a part of the gift. I want to be the answer to somebody’s prayer. I want to be the support of a missionary. I want to be the answer to making sure when we get together for worship that the lights are on. I want to make sure that I’m a part of what God is up to in this encore!” And we are not offering just our gifts, but our whole selves in those moments. That is what the offering is.

It’s as if the band calls us up onto the stage to dance with them and participate in the encore. I’ve seen a couple of bands that have done that. There was one guy in particular who invites have the crowd up on the stage, and he’s got people on his shoulders, and he’s dancing with everyone, and all of these people on the stage. That is what we are doing in the offering. God is inviting us onto the stage to be part of the encore. To be included in the best part. To be the part of the things that nobody knew was going to happen. That is what we are doing.

For all the complaining about the apportionments, they are part of the gift! The giving is the gift! It is who we are. It is this invitation that God gives to be part of God’s encore. And again, the only word I can find is gratitude. The gift is in the labor. The gift is in the giving. Thanks be to God.

[1]Kathryn D. Blanchard, “Theological Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year A, vol. 4, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2011), p. 96.

[3] Kelly S. Johnson, “Praying: Poverty,” in The Blackwell Companion to Christian Ethics, ed. by Stanley Hauerwas and Samuel Wells, (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2004), p. 228.