Exile can dim the memory.  It is difficult to remember our identity when exile happens.  There is pressure to assimilate into the foreign culture, both from persecution as well as simple peer pressure to fit in.  Further, exile seems to place us on the losing end of things.  When exile happens, those other gods and false idols start to seem appealing.[1]  The doubts begin to creep in.  “Maybe they are stronger than our God?  Maybe we were wrong?  If God loved us more, wouldn’t our God have prevented this from happening?”  It is hard for the Israelites, and us, to remember who we are in when we are in exile.

The Israelites suffered this failure of memory regularly during their exile.  And who can blame them?  Plucked up their home, disconnected from their land, their people, and many of the practices that made them who they were, it is no wonder that they struggled to remember.  Think of the words of the Psalmist: “How can we sing the songs of the LORD in a strange land? (Psalm 137.4).”  In our Isaiah passage today, we hear the Israelites say, “My way is hidden from the LORD, and my right is disregarded by my God.”  It is hard to remember who we are in exile.

“Have you not known?” Isaiah interjects.  “Have you not heard?” Isaiah cries.  “Has it not been told you from the beginning?” Isaiah shouts.  “Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth?”  Isaiah exclaims.   Through Isaiah, God challenges them to remember.  Their God, isn’t just any god.  Their God isn’t just the kind of god who can be judged and evaluated based simply on whether things happen to be going well for them right now.  Their God is the God

who, sits above the circle of the earth,
and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers;
who stretches out the heavens like a curtain,
and spreads them like a tent to live in;
who brings princes to naught,
and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing.

All of the rulers of the earth can be made as nothing because of the greatness of their God.  God is above these things.  God is in control.  Isaiah reminds the Israelites of the temporary nature of these rulers over and against God’s eternity:

Scarcely are they planted, scarcely sown,
scarcely has their stem taken root in the earth,
when he blows upon them, and they wither,
and the tempest carries them off like stubble.

Isaiah brings back to their memory who their God is:

To whom then will you compare me,
or who is my equal? says the Holy One.
Lift up your eyes on high and see:
Who created these?
He who brings out their host and numbers them,
calling them all by name;
because he is great in strength,
mighty in power,
not one is missing.

Their memory has failed.  Their resolve has begun to buckle.  But Isaiah will not let them forget.  These false gods, these new rulers who seem to have won the victory are incomparable to the God of Israel.  Who created even those who seem to be winning?  The God of their ancestors.  The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  Remember who you are Isaiah says.  And the way to remember that is to remember who God is.

After he repeats the complaint of the Israelites, Isaiah keeps pushing.  God is the Creator, and there is no end to God.  They might lose faith, they might feel powerless, even the young may fall exhausted, but God is everlasting.  God’s understanding is unsearchable.  When we lose sight of this, when our memory fails, we lose resolve.  But the strength of the Israelites, and our own strength is renewed by waiting for the Lord.  God outlasts exile.  But God doesn’t outlast exile and suffering from some distant place.  God outlasts all because God is everlasting, but God extends the invitation to us to join him in God’s everlasting-ness (yes that’s a new word I invented).  When we are caught up in the stream of God’s everlasting-ness, we are mounted up with eagles’ wings.  We can run and not be weary.  We can walk and not faint.  The Israelites have lost their vision.  The Israelites have experienced amnesia about their God.  Because of this, they also begin to forget who they are.

As soon as they left the synagogue, they entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John.  Now Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once.  He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up.  Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.

 “Have you not known?  Have you not heard?  Has it not been told you from the beginning?  Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth? … He gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless…Have you not known?  Have you not heard? … Those who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.

Simon Peter’s mother-in-law is caught up into God’s everlasting-ness.  The same God about whom Isaiah cried out to the Israelites.  The God who is over all things.  The God who gives power to the faint and strengthens the powerless.  The God who renews strength has renewed her strength.  God’s Word has assumed flesh and begun to walk among God’s people.  In doing this, Jesus Christ initiated the most decisive way for us to be caught up into God’s everlasting-ness.  “Have you not known?  Have you not heard?…The fever left her, and she began to serve them.”  Her experience of Christ, the renewal of strength she experiences immediately moves her to service.

“That evening, at sundown, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons.  And the whole city was gathered around the door.”  “Have you not known?  Have you not heard?”  “And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and he cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him.”  Even the demons know who Jesus is because the God who “sits above the circle of the earth,” is the God who is even Lord over them. We hear the words of Isaiah echo: “Lift up your eyes on high and see:  who created these?”   Jesus is bringing to fruition the cries of Isaiah.  He does this, as we saw last week, first by assuming flesh and initiating our healing.  Then he begins to move from place to place raising up signs of this healing by performing healings on those who are afflicted, sick, and possessed.  And in the midst of this, the disciples and we, are being trained to do the same to bring healing to others.

The kind of healing we talked about last week finds us caught up in God:  Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Through Jesus Christ we are invited into God’s life.  God’s life is everlasting.  Our healing finds us caught up in God’s everlasting-ness.  It is not a far off everlasting-ness, left to a distant heaven.  It is an everlasting-ness that begins now, as we are shaped, formed, nourished, and sent out into the world to reveal glimpses of God’s everlasting-ness to the world.  Eternal life begins now, and it is not something to be hoarded our boasted about.  It is something to be offered.  The very shape of eternal life, the everlasting-ness that God offers us, is that it grows when it is offered and shared.

When Jesus goes to the desert place to recover and pray, the disciples “hunt” him down.  They tell him, “Everyone is searching for you.”  Everyone is searching for you.   Think about the depth of those words.  Everyone is searching for you.  I don’t want to read too much into these words, but the Wesleyan in me wants to her Prevenient Grace here.  I want to hear that God’s grace that comes before we have any idea is always wooing us into relationship or back into relationship with God.  I want to hear that when people begin to encounter the everlasting-ness of God in Jesus Christ, they want to come closer.  They want to respond to the grace.

As people encounter Jesus, they begin to crowd around him.  Though Jesus has moved away by himself to pray, when he hears “everyone is searching for you” he says, ‘Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.’”  He doesn’t stay to revel in his new celebrity, he is spurred on to proclaim his message in a new place, to allow more people to encounter face-to-face God’s everlasting-ness, God’s life, and God’s love into which we are all invited.

Jesus moves about Galilee.  Emmanuel, God with us, goes about, and as he does those who encounter him encounter God’s everlasting-ness.  He moves about, giving power to the weakened and strength to the powerless.  He lives out what Isaiah was trying to so hard to bring to the memory of the Israelites, what they seemed to have forgotten in exile.  Here’s the thing.  In many ways, we could argue that we are experiencing our own exile.  If there was ever such a thing as America being a Christian nation, it’s not true any more.  And there are a couple of ways we can respond to this.  We can lament for days gone by.  We can try to grab hold of power politically.  Or we can recognize that exile may not be the worst thing.  While it can be scary, it is not the worst thing in the world for our faith to cost us something.

When there is little cost to our discipleship, there is little real commitment required.  The times when martyrdom was a reality were more convincing to the world of who Christ was than times when the governments have implicitly or explicitly claimed the Church as its own.  When the lines are blurred, whatever the state does may appear to be the same as the Church, which is a dangerous reality.  The power of the state will almost always coerce the Church.  The Church has always flourished in the times when it takes actual commitment to follow Christ.  It is that commitment, that often goes against the grain, which demonstrates to the world that we are shaped differently than the world around us.

Yet, as we saw from the Isaiah passage, exile can dim the memory.  How are we to remember?  We might find a new prophet among us saying the words regularly, “Have you not known?  Have you not heard?  Have you forgotten who Jesus is and the things he did?  Have you forgotten that it is who graciously invites you into God’s everlasting-ness?  Have you forgotten hat you are trained to do this same, to proclaim the message with your life?”  How are we to remember?  This week, during our Holy Communion study the issue of memory arose in our conversation.  One of the most important facets of Holy Communion is memory.  Yet, often we short-change what it means to remember in the Lord’s Supper.

When we think of memory, we tend to think only of looking back to a different time.  We can turn Holy Communion into a memorial service for something that happened 2,000 ago.  We may look upon it with gratitude.  We may bring it into our mind.  But it mainly affects us by Christ’s example, by looking back on this particular act.  When we only look back on it as an action in the past, we don’t remember that this table also involves God’s action NOW in the church community!

“Have you not known?  Have you not heard?”

The word that we translate remember is the Greek word anamnesis.  To remember in the way this word suggests means more than just looking back.  The conception of remembering inherent in this Greek word is that the past event is brought into the present.  To remember at this table means not just that we look back.  Rather, it means that the Lord’s Supper is made present among us.  Christ, through the Holy Spirit, is present at the table when we share the bread and the cup together at the table.  God’s grace that forgives our sins is in this sacrament because Christ who forgives our sins is present.  God’s grace that makes us one in the one body of Christ is present in this sacrament because his body and blood are present through the power of the Holy Spirit.

What all this means is that when we come to this table, we not only remember what happened in the past, but we, ourselves, are re-membered.  As a friend of mine, Andrew Thompson pointed out in a United Methodist Reporter article, to re-member something is “to put something back together that has been taken apart.  We “literally…‘re-member’ that thing, so that the various “members” that made up the “whole” are put back into a unity.”[2]  This is Holy Communion.

“Have you not known?  Have you not heard?”

Coming together at the Lord’s table is the ultimate antidote for our amnesia.  When we come together to receive Holy Communion we are reminded of who we are because we are literally “re-membered” by Jesus.  Jesus puts us back together.  When we begin to forget who we are, we meet Christ, God’s everlasting-ness, face to face at the table.  We experience God’s everlasting-ness with taste and touch.  This reminder is more than just a pointing to an act 2,000 years ago.  It is an invitation into God’s everlasting-ness.  It is an invitation into God’s life.  It is an invitation to have our identity re-shaped as we share Christ’s body and blood.

It is the ultimate encounter with the one who brings healing to us by sharing our flesh because through the power of the Holy Spirit we receive the flesh that heals us.  When we encounter this reality, like Simon’s mother we begin to serve.  When we encounter this reality, like the disciples we begin to move with Jesus, proclaiming his message.  We remember because Christ re-members us to serve and proclaim his message in the world in which, whether they know it or not, “Everyone is searching for him.”

[1] Richard A. Puckett, “Exegetical Perspective, Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 1, (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox, 2008), p. 315.

[2] Andrew Thompson, “Rethinking the Church Involves Remembering,”, cited Oct. 1, 2010.

God has assembled the divine council with words to speak to God’s people.[1]  “Comfort, comfort my people” God says.  We don’t normally think about God having a divine council, but in Isaiah’s time their conception of God was often formed by their images of a king, and kings hold court.  This happens in various places throughout the Hebrew Scriptures.  In fact, it happens much earlier in Isaiah.  Back in Isaiah 6, we remember Isaiah’s call story.  In Isaiah we encounter a vision of what this environment looked like to Isaiah:

I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. And one called to another and said:
‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;
the whole earth is full of his glory.’
The pivotson the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke.

God asks “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” and it is Isaiah who responds to the question.  Isaiah thus received his first commission from God:

Go and say to this people:
“Keep listening, but do not comprehend;
keep looking, but do not understand.”
1Make the mind of this people dull,
and stop their ears,
and shut their eyes,
so that they may not look with their eyes,
and listen with their ears,
and comprehend with their minds,
and turn and be healed.’

Isaiah is to speak judgment on Israel for their idolatry, for not caring for the orphan and the widow, for the many ways they have turned away from God.  Isaiah asks, “How long, O Lord?”  The Lord responds:

Until cities lie waste
without inhabitant,
and houses without people,
and the land is utterly desolate;
until the Lord sends everyone far away,
and vast is the emptiness in the midst of the land.
Even if a tenth part remains in it,
it will be burned again,
like a terebinth or an oak
whose stump remains standing
when it is felled.’
The holy seed is its stump.

God is speaking here of the exile that Israel will soon experience.  The prophets understood even the Assyrians as actors in God’s interaction with them, in this case as instruments of judgment.

In Isaiah 40, Isaiah seems to be receiving another glimpse of the meeting of the council.  Yet, here God says to those assembled, “Comfort, comfort my people.”  It is clear that God is not just speaking to Isaiah because the imperative for “comfort” here is plural in Hebrew.  Something is happening here.  Something has changed.  Suddenly, the call is to:

Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
and cry to her
that she has served her term,
that her penalty is paid,
that she has received from the Lord’s hand
double for all her sins.

Isaiah, it appears is receiving a “reapplication” of his call. His first commission is finished because Babylon did indeed destroy Jerusalem in 587.[2]  Isaiah is to speak a new word.  A word of consolation.  A word of hope.  It’s over.  Something new is happening.

Then, we hear a voice, presumably one of the members of God’s divine council.  This voice delivers Isaiah’s charge:

A voice cries out:
‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be lifted up,
and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
and the rough places a plain.
Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
and all people shall see it together,
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.’

Something new is happening.  The people have been in exile.  They have been far from home.  Yet, now a highway is opening up.  The very earth is being reshaped, valleys lifted up, hills made low, ground leveling out, and rough places smoothed out in order to prepare the way of the Lord, which will lead them back to their land![3]  What a word!

Another voice speaks, and tells Isaiah to “cry out!”  Isaiah knows the commission, now he needs to know what to say, so he asks, “What shall I cry?”  Well, perhaps that is what he asks…When I was looking into this scripture for this week, I ran into a fascinating suggestion.  What if the translation in most of the versions we use end the quotation marks too early?[4]  There are no quotation marks in Hebrew, so the ending of the sentence is really at the discretion of the translators.  If you have a bible in front of you, I encourage you to keep them open and look with me at verse 6.  What if, instead of Isaiah just asking what to say, he is actually objecting to this new commission?  This would not be unusual.  After all, he does this in his original commission, noting his guilt as one who has unclean lips and is a from a people of unclean lips.  What if Isaiah is saying,

What shall I cry?
All people are grass,
their constancy is like the flower of the field.
The grass withers, the flower fades,
when the breath of the Lord blows upon it;
surely the people are grass.

Isaiah has been speaking judgment for a long time.  He has seen that judgment carried out by the Assyrians.  He has seen exile, brokenness and hopelessness.  It isn’t a stretch to think that perhaps the idea of speaking about the dawning of a new day of salvation might feel far-fetched to Isaiah.  He has seen that that people truly are like grass that withers and flowers that fades.  The breath of the Lord has blown on the people in an unfavorable way.  Essentially, Isaiah asks, “Seriously?  You want me to say this now after all the devastation I have seen?”

This is, I think, how we feel when we truly lament.  When we take a real look at the world around us, at the brokenness, the injustice, and the manifold ways that we have turned our back on God and one another, it washes over us and we feel so powerless.  Even though lament is the beginning of hope, we feel hopeless when we are honest about the world in which we live.  I think extending the quotation marks for Isaiah makes more sense not just because it works better contextually, but also because it honors what seems to more likely be Isaiah’s and our own experience.  To speak tenderly, to announce something new, into such brokenness seems to feel just a bit naïve.  The grass withers, the flower fades.  Violence continues.  Hunger continues.  Oppression continues.  Death continues.  The grass withers, the flower fades. (pause)

Isaiah, receives an answer to his question.  “The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever.”  In the midst of temporariness, in the midst of ephemerality, in the midst of upheaval and change, it is God’s word that is constant.  Isaiah is likely being reminded that even in the midst of the judgment he spoke, he also always spoke of a remnant and a coming day of salvation.[5]  The word he spoke still stand, and now is the time for the salvation he pointed towards to come to a reality.  Isaiah may not even believe it, but the time has come to speak a new word!  In reality, though we say we do, we may not believe it either.

I will confess that as much as I hem and haw about the need for us to proclaim Good News in the midst of a world of bad news, sometimes it is a difficult on which to follow through.  There is so much bad news, and there is so much to complain about, and I am really good at complaining.  It is important for me to be honest in saying that when I say that, I am preaching to myself as much as anyone else.  Yet, as Peter Bohler told John Wesley when Wesley was concerned that he did not truly have faith, “Preach faith till you have it.  And then, because you have it, you will preach faith.”[6]

This is why we need Advent.  We need Advent because we need to keep reminding ourselves not only about how deep our lament must be, but also because we need to remind ourselves how incredible the good news is that we have been given to share.  We pick up the discipline of waiting during Advent because it means taking the time to focus ourselves on the hope we are anticipating.  People want to use Christmas for a lot of things, and we are likely to get co-opted by those alternative agendas unless we regain that focus.  We are easily pulled back into the bad news of the world unless we regain our focus.

Isaiah has a hard time speaking this new word, and I think we have a hard time speaking this good news in the midst of a world so full of bad news.  In our deepest darkest places we may have some doubts about whether it’s real.  That’s okay.  Advent is a time to be honest about that, and to be strengthened by the Holy Spirit as we anticipate the coming of Jesus.  It is true that we are like grass that withers.  It is true that we are like flowers that fade.  Yet, the word of our God stands forever.  We know this because the Word of our God took on flesh and became like us.  That is what we are anticipating in Advent.  The new day of salvation that dawned on that Holy night.

And Mark, when he began his Gospel, when he thought about John in the wilderness, when he reflected one who Jesus was, he looked back on that Isaiah passage about this voice in the wilderness, and he said, “That’s it!  Isaiah was talking about the exile, but the new day of salvation is really decisively present in Jesus Christ!”  I think that is why Mark begins his Gospel with the verbless sentence, “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”[7]  God’s Word stands forever.  God’s Word that we hear proclaimed.  God’s Word that we ingest at the table.  God’s Word that we are baptized into because we are baptized into the body of the Word of God who assumed flesh.

To be honest about that and to say that out loud is scary because it seems naïve, something that is too good to be true, like some kind of fairy tales to many of the ears listening.  It is scary.  Notice in the text that as this glory is being revealed to all people, as they are asked to go the top of a mountain and to proclaim this good news, there is the injunction, “Do not fear.”  Why is good news so scary?  I think it feels scary to say good things into the midst of an environment that feels so bad.[8]  It seems like naiveté.

I think it could have been scary for John to say those things and for Mark to say them as well.  The world Jesus came into was a mess.  The Jews were occupied by Rome.  In fact, they had just lost a war of revolt against the Romans.  Everything seemed hopeless, yet that Gospel begins with “The Good News.”  John the Baptist looked like a fool to many who wanted to be “real” about the way the world worked.

Yet, God tells Isaiah to say, “Do not fear.”  And then we return to that intimate language about God as the shepherd who will feed his flock, gather the lambs in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.  It is true that as we lament, as we are honest about the world.  It feels hopeless, but we are assured that the word of our God stands forever.

[1] My interpretation of this passage is heavily dependent on Brevard Childs, The Old Testament Library Commentary on Isaiah, (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), pp. 293-303.

[2] Childs, Isaiah, p. 295.

[3] Ibid., p. 299.

[4] Ibid., p. 300.

[5] Child’s example is Isaiah 28:5-6, On that day the Lord of hosts will be a garland of glory,/and a diadem of beauty, to the remnant of his people;/and a spirit of justice to the one who sits in judgement,/and strength to those who turn back the battle at the gate.” Ibid.

[6] John Wesley, Journal and Diaries, ed. By Reginald Ward and Richard P. Heitzenrater, vol. 18 in The Bicentennial Edition of the Works of John Wesley (Nashville:  Abingdon, 1988-), p. 226.

[7] Nadia Bolz-Weber, “Go Ahead, Judge a Book by its Title,” The Hardest Question,, cited Dec. 4, 2011.

[8] Kathleen M. O’Connor, “Exegetical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 1, (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox, 2011) p. 31.

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.

Jesus goes to the vineyard again in his parable this week.  Jesus describes a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a watchtower.  This landowner puts some tenants in charge of the vineyard.  At some point, this landowner decides it is time to collect his produce.  He sends two different envoys of servants, with each envoy having members beaten, killed, or stoned by the tenants who wish to keep the harvest for themselves.  The landowner finally decides to send his son to collect the harvest, thinking that perhaps the tenants will respect his son more than his servants.  Just the opposite happens.  The tenants recognize the son as the heir of the landowner, and so they kill him to try to get his inheritance.

What is at first most surprising to me about this parable is the seemingly faulty logic on the part of the landowner.  Take the landowner for instance.  He has sent two different sets of servants to collect his harvest, and in case they have been viciously brutalized.  Why would the landowner then potentially subject his son to the same treatment?  Why send two by all appearances peaceful envoys of servants and finally send your son?  Why not send some armed thugs to take care of business?  What is this landowner up to?

This vineyard is clearly a favorite image of Jesus, considering this is the third week we have run into a vineyard parable.  However, Jesus did not just use the image because it would have been a familiar landscape to his listeners.  The vineyard also would have been a familiar scriptural theme.  In this next parable, this scriptural theme comes most clearly into focus.  By using the image of the vineyard, Jesus is recalling imagery from the fifth chapter of Isaiah[1]:

1Let me sing for my beloved
my love-song concerning his vineyard:
My beloved had a vineyard
on a very fertile hill.
2 He dug it and cleared it of stones,
and planted it with choice vines;
he built a watch-tower in the midst of it,
and hewed out a wine vat in it;
he expected it to yield grapes,
but it yielded wild grapes.

3 And now, inhabitants of Jerusalem
and people of Judah,
judge between me
and my vineyard.
4 What more was there to do for my vineyard
that I have not done in it?
When I expected it to yield grapes,
why did it yield wild grapes?

5 And now I will tell you
what I will do to my vineyard.
I will remove its hedge,
and it shall be devoured;
I will break down its wall,
and it shall be trampled down.
6 I will make it a waste;
it shall not be pruned or hoed,
and it shall be overgrown with briers and thorns;
I will also command the clouds
that they rain no rain upon it.

People as educated as the chief priests and elders would have picked up on this vineyard imagery quickly.  The image is an image of judgment.  Notice the way imagery of planting, fencing in, digging a wine press, and building a watchtower resonate with what Jesus says.  In Isaiah’s context, the failure of Judah the vineyard to produce good grapes results in Assyria becoming an instrument of God’s judgment as they invade and exile the Judean elite. Yet, as Jesus re-presents this imagery, he does something new with it.  Jesus “intensifies the meaning…by combining it with the traditional Jewish motif of the rejection of the prophets.”[2]

The envoys of servants Jesus describes represent the prophets.  And what were the prophets concerned with?  Most often the prophets are concerned justice for the oppressed.  We often think of prophets as something like fortune-tellers predicting the future, but if you read through the words of the prophets, they routinely speak truth to power.  They routinely draw attention to the failures of those in power to care for the most vulnerable among them, the poor, the hungry, the widows, and the orphans.  The judgment that the prophet Isaiah speaks comes as a result of this kind of failure:

7 For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts
is the house of Israel,
and the people of Judah
are his pleasant planting;
he expected justice,
but saw bloodshed;
but heard a cry!

The history Jesus rehearses in this parable is the history of God sending prophet after prophet after prophet to Israel.  These prophets tried to remind God’s people of who they were called to be, but those in power wanted to maintain their power, so the prophets were routinely rejected and even killed, or as Jesus puts in the parable, they “beat one, killed, one, and stoned another.”  Not only has the vineyard yielded wild grapes, but those who have come to help restore proper order to the vineyard, those who have spoken for justice for the oppressed have been rejected.

Jesus’ description of the landowner sending his very own son is then a foreshadowing of events to come.  Jesus is God’s decisive answer to our tendency to yield wild grapes.  Yet, here Jesus is already anticipating his own rejection, just as those who God sent before him.  He has come into town on the back of a donkey to much acclaim, yet even those who shouted, “Hosanna!” will soon by crying out, “Crucify him!”  In these verses Jesus is part of a long pattern of those sent by God to speak on behalf of those who could speak for themselves.  He is part of a long pattern of those who challenged those in power because of their failure to care for the least of these.  And, as we know, he will also be part of a long pattern of those who will be rejected.

When Jesus has finished the parable, he asks the elders and priests what they think will happen to the wicked tenants of that vineyard.  They reply, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time.”  These words, like some of the words we heard last week often give rise to conversation about the Church replacing Israel, that the vineyard has been turned over to the Church.  This again, could not be farther from the truth.

What is important to remember here is that the words we just heard were spoken not by Jesus, but by the chief priests and elders themselves.

They are the ones here who speak of death.  They are the ones who suggest that the vineyard will be taken away.  They are the ones who are suggesting that the answer to this problem is violence.  Yet, if we look at the pattern established in the parable, violence is not the order of the day.  God sends prophet after prophet, and the prophets are the ones who suffer violence.  Jesus is the one who will suffer violence.  Those in power are the ones who will move first towards violence as a solution.  The landowner seems only too ready to ask again and again for the harvest.

Jesus doesn’t say to chief priest and elders, “Yes, you are correct.”  Rather, he answers them with more scripture, this time from a Psalm:  “The stone that the builders rejected/has become the cornerstone;/his was the Lord’s doing,/and it is amazing in our eyes!” (Psalm 118:22-23)  Jesus does end up saying that this vineyard will be taken away and given to those who will care for it properly, but this is not about the vineyard being taken from Israel and being given to the Church.  As we pointed out last week, just because Jesus says the tax collectors and the prostitutes will go into the kingdom of God ahead of chief priests and elders, it doesn’t mean that the latter won’t go in.  This is true again this morning.  This doesn’t mean the complete, utter, and final rejection because Paul makes it clear that the covenant with Israel still stands.  Rather, this scripture is about rejection and vindication.  This scripture is about the rejected stone becoming the cornerstone.  This is about Jesus’ rejection and coming vindication.  This is about restoration.

The image of the stone looks at first like a violent image.  Yet, if we go back to Isaiah, and we look on to chapter 8, we see God speaking about God’s self as a stone, a stumbling block (Isaiah 8:14).[3]  The LORD becomes the stumbling block for the people, and Assyria becomes God’s instrument of judgment in exiling Israel.  Listen to the words of judgment Isaiah speaks in chapter eight:

The Lord spoke to me again: 6Because this people has refused the waters of Shiloah that flow gently, and melt in fear before* Rezin and the son of Remaliah; 7therefore, the Lord is bringing up against it the mighty flood waters of the River, the king of Assyria and all his glory; it will rise above all its channels and overflow all its banks; 8it will sweep on into Judah as a flood, and, pouring over, it will reach up to the neck; and its outspread wings will fill the breadth of your land, O Immanuel.

9 Band together, you peoples, and be dismayed;
listen, all you far countries;
gird yourselves and be dismayed;
gird yourselves and be dismayed!
10 Take counsel together, but it shall be brought to naught;
speak a word, but it will not stand,
for God is with us.

Isaiah speaks of the coming of Assyria.  God speaks soon of God’s self as a stumbling block.  Jesus speaks of himself as this stone that will crush.  When we hear this, it feels like God is just about to smite us.  God is gonna get us!  God is gonna punish us and take the vineyard away!  Yet, what God is saying through Isaiah, what Jesus is saying here is that this stone, though it is an instrument of judgment, it is an instrument primarily to turn our hearts.  Its purpose is to reform us into a different kind of people.  Let’s be clear.  God does not stop being God for Israel, even when the Assyrians invade.  Even when they are exiled, God is still the God of Israel.  Israel understood the exile as God’s judgment on them to bring them back into relationship with God.  Notice the last verse of the passage I just read, “Take counsel together, but it shall be brought to naught;/speak a word, but it will not stand,/for God is with us.

The reason that injustice cannot stand, the reason that the hungry, the poor, the widow and the orphan must not be oppressed is not because God is absent, but it comes by virtue of the fact that God is truly with us.  That kind of injustice cannot stand in God’s presence.  This stone that will crush, does not crush us into bits that can’t be put back together.  Rather, it crushes us, so that we can be put back together into a different kind of people.  So that we can be made into a mosaic that looks like the body of Christ.  Something beautiful comes out of the bits that are left.  This kind of injustice cannot stand in God’s presence.  Because God is with us, we are move towards being instruments of change that challenge the brokenness we see in our society.

We are being reformed.  We United Methodists like to call this process sanctification.  All the stuff in us that is keeping us from God and from one another is being cleaned out by the Holy Spirit.  We are being reformed into people who are people of justice.

Notice what Jesus says  “It will be given to people who produce the fruits of the kingdom.”  What are the fruits of the kingdom?  There are many, but it is clear that they included justice for the oppressed.  Right worship of God and not our idols.  The stone crushes us to make it possible for us to be who we are supposed to be.  We don’t really talk like this much anymore, but is at least one common way that we still say things like this.  Have you ever heard someone ask God to “break our hearts” for something?

We sang “Here I am Lord” last week, where we sing about God breaking our “hearts of stone,” and giving us “hearts for love alone.”  The stone that makes us stumble, and even crushes us, breaks our heart.  It breaks our heart for the people with whom we are supposed to be in love.  Jesus is not just a prophet who speaks of the kingdom, but he is himself the kingdom.  Wherever he is, the kingdom is located there.  And he located himself with those tax collectors and those prostitutes and those widows and those orphans.  Jesus is breaking our hearts for them.

As we gather together this day on World Communion Sunday, as we think of all those around the world who celebrate at the Lord’s table with us this day, the way that we are connected to one another, our hearts are broken for the oppressed, precisely because God is with us in this meal.  Injustice cannot stand in our midst because God is with us! Thanks be to God!

[1] Susan Eastman, “Exegetical Perspective,” Feasting, Year A, vol. 4, (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox, 2011), p. 143.

[2] Eastman, “Exegetical Perspective,” Feasting, p. 143.

[3] Eastman, Feasting, p. 143.

When I was just beginning the process of becoming a United Methodist pastor, at the very beginning of the ordination process that we have to go through, they give you a psychological test.  And then, a bit more through the process they give you another test.  And then before they ordain you, they give you one more test.  So, I’ve been vetted three times, and they still let me come!  The very time I went through the psychological test, I went through and filled out the test.  I mailed off the test, and then I met with a therapist to go over the results of the psychological test.  At one point in the conversation, the therapist said, “Do you think you might have a problem with authority? Do you think there might be any rebelliousness in you?”

I thought for a few seconds, and perhaps as surprising to me and it was to her, the answer that I gave was, “I find the rule of faith passed on from the apostle’s to be rebellious enough.  I don’t need another way to rebel or go outside the lines.”  The rule of faith passed on throughout the church is enough for me.  As we were in our Bible Study on Wednesday where some of the youth are following the lectionary, as we started to talk about the scripture, that is the story that came up in my mind as we struggled with this passage.

The chief priests and elders ask Jesus the question, “By what authority are you doing these things?”  It is important to remember what has just happened.  Jesus has recently cleared out the temple, driving out those who are buying and selling in the temple.  He drives out those who would let the temple simply be another place of commerce.  We remember this part well.  What we often forget is what happens next.  When those who are buying and selling are driven out, the blind and the lame enter into the temple, and Jesus cures them.  For Jesus to welcome these disabled persons into the temple is significant.  As one of my favorite professors, Stanley Hauerwas, reminds us:

David had prohibited the blind and the lame from coming into his house (2 Sam. 5:8), and in Lev. 21:17 the blind and the lame were prohibited from offering sacrifices to God.  Jesus truly cleansed the temple, overturning the established order by inviting into the temple those who had been excluded.[1]

The cleansing of the temple is deeper than driving out those who were using it as a place of commerce; it includes creating peace in welcoming those who had not been welcome in the house of worship.  Those folks who no one thought had any business in their house of worship, Jesus invited in.  Maybe the rule of faith passed on from the apostles is just rebellious enough.   Jesus named that they were welcome, that they were significant, that they were important.  He welcomed those who were at the edges.  He welcomed those on the margins because those who were in the center of the authority refused to welcome them.

The chief priests and elders, the established authorities, want to know who Jesus thinks he is.  They want to know by whose authority he would drive out the moneychangers from whom they likely benefit.  They want to know by whose authority he would welcome the disabled who they think have no place in God’s house?  Hey Jesus, judging from your psychological exam, do you think you might have a problem with authority?  Just who do you think you are?  Jesus, the Rabbi, cleverly answers their question with a question of his own.  He asks, “Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?”

The chief priests and elders then argue amongst themselves how they should answer.  I can imagine them huddling together in a circle trying to figure out what to say.  If we say “heaven,” then w admit that John was a legitimate prophet whose words should have been heeded.  If we say earth, we fear the anger of the crowds, who did regard John as a prophet.  Like so many political and religious authorities we encounter, they are trying to maintain their own authority by keeping people happy without ceding any authority to others.  Those in the established authority did not accept John, yet the crowds, those without power, again, those on the margins accepted John as a prophet.

Jesus’ question does more than simply catch the chief priests and elders in a quandary.  His question links him directly to John the Baptist.  They want to know the authority, and while Jesus does not directly answer the question, he does gesture in that direction.  Jesus could have chosen any number of prophets with which to identify himself.  People they could have commonly agreed on:  Isaiah, Zechariah, Hosea, Elijah.  Yet, here, Jesus goes again to the margins with John the Baptist.[2]  John the Baptist, this seemingly crazy figure.  He was regarded as a certifiable religious nut.  This guy who hangs out in the desert.  This guy who wears camel skin and eats bugs.  This man on the margins.  This man who the crowds accepted, but the established authorities did not.  He was a prophet on the margins.

Jesus is linking himself to this man.  Jesus is again linking himself to the margins.  It was this man from the margins that the authorities rejected, who ultimately was killed.  It is Jesus now, who is also identifying himself at the margins who also looks ahead to rejection, to death at the hands of the powers that be.[3]  Jesus will not tell them by whose authority he has done these actions because their refusal of John demonstrates their unwillingness to recognize that Jesus’ authority also comes from God.   Indeed, because of who he is, Jesus’s authority comes from himself.[4]  He could have just answered “me.”

To illustrate his point Jesus again tells a parable, using vineyard imagery just as he did in our scripture for last week.  Interestingly enough, this parable seems more straightforward that most parables Jesus tells.  A man has two sons.  He asks one to go to work in his vineyard.  This first son refuses to go work in the vineyard.  Then he changes his mind and goes to work.  The second son agrees to go work in the vineyard.  Then he changes his mind and doesn’t.  Jesus asks a simple question.  Who did the will of their father?  The answer is clear, the son who at first said he would not work, but then changed his mind and worked in the vineyard.  This is not as surprising as some of the other parables, the answer seems so clear.

The surprise comes when he elaborates on the parable.  Jesus says, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you.”  This is the shocking part.  How could this be possible?  How could “those people” be ahead of anyone going into the kingdom of God?  How could those who are convinced they are living faithfully be behind those upon whom everyone agrees are the worst people in society?  Can you imagine?  Those who are convinced they are living faithfully will be behind those who on one likes.  Those who again, are on the margins.

Jesus makes it abundantly clear.  The tax collectors and prostitutes believe what John was saying, and those at the center of religious and political authority did not.  And what was John saying?  What was John doing while he was in the wilderness preaching repentance for sins and baptizing?  He was pointing always to the one would come next, to the Messiah, to Jesus.  The priests and elders would not believe John, and they will not believe Jesus.

The chief priests and elders want to know by whose authority Jesus does these things.  But it doesn’t matter what Jesus says because they will not believe him.  They consider themselves the authority.  They consider themselves the judges of who has authority from God.  Jesus, who is himself the authority, relocates the center of authority to the margins, because he locates himself on the margins, with the prostitutes and tax collectors, the people no one likes, those who are disenfranchised, and persons with disabilities.  Everyone is convinced “those people” are sinners and as far from God as possible.  Yet they believed John, and many of they now believe Jesus.  They didn’t at first, but now they have begun working in the vineyard.

So, when I hear the question, “Do you think you might have a problem with authority?” it depends on what authority you’re talking about.  If that’s authority that comes from Jesus Christ, discerned in the Body of Christ, led by the Holy Spirit, that drives us to the margins, that drives us to welcome into our midst those who no one else will welcome, then there’s no problem there.  To rebel, is be Christian in this case.  We are already doing something different by lavishing our time and talents on those about whom others have forgotten.

Before I go any further, let me make one thing clear.  Let me make it clear how not to interpret this passage.  Some would use this passage as a way to declare that God somehow replaced Israel with the church.  They cast a vision of all Jewish persons as being the same as these chief priests and scribes.  They believe that this scripture supports that vision.  This could not be further from scripture or the truth.  Paul makes it clear that the church is grafted on to Israel, and he also makes it clear that while we may not understand it fully, God has not rejected the covenant God made with Israel (Romans 11).  The implications of this are more than we can go into this morning, but what is clear is that Jesus is not saying here that all of Israel is being cast off in favor of the Church.  This is about doing the will of the Father.  Jesus is a Jewish person living among other Jewish persons speaking to other Jewish persons in the temple.  This is about looking at those in authority and asking if they are doing the will of the Father from whom all true authority comes.

Even better, the parable itself puts us in the middle.  Plenty of us said we would get to work in the vineyard, and then we don’t.  Plenty of us have said we wouldn’t work, but then we do work unexpectedly.  We find ourselves in the middle.  We find ourselves undecided.  We find ourselves at a crossroads.  We find ourselves asking the question, “How shall I live today?  Who shall I be today?  What authority shall I follow?  Who will I give myself to today?  Will it be Wall Street?  Will it be a news commentator?  Will it be a politician?  Will it be infidelity?”  We find ourselves always teetering on the edge between whether we get to work in the vineyard or we don’t.  But the beauty of this is that it is not final.

Jesus says that the tax collectors and the prostitutes will go ahead of the chief priests and elders into the Kingdom of Heaven.  He doesn’t say the priests and elders won’t go into the Kingdom of Heaven at all.  They just haven’t heard. They haven’t gotten down into the vineyard in a while.  They haven’t been down on the margins with folks lately.    There is still opportunity. There is still time.  There is still possibility.  The problem right now is that, like we talked about a few weeks ago, this isn’t the kind of Messiah the chief priests and scribes were looking for.  This guy rode in on a donkey, and they wanted him to ride in on a war horse.[5]  They wanted him to come in and conquer the Romans.  That’s the thing that’s floating around in the background during this whole discussion of authority.  The chief priests and elders consider themselves the authority, but they are a people who are under Roman authority.  Yet Jesus comes in and bucks all of it.

Jesus, do you think you might have a problem with authority?  It depends on what authority you’re talking about.  When Jesus comes in as the true authority, he messes with our lives because he disrupts our allegiance to all other authorities.  I realize that I don’t always get to work in the vineyard like I should.  I also recognize that God is still calling me there.  If I’m not there I need to get there.

So, I realize it was a weird way to answer that woman’s question about whether I have a problem with authority.  But I believe it was truthful to say that there is enough rebelliousness when we start to go where Jesus goes.  We’re going to look weird.  We’re going to look different, and it’s going to look like we’re rebelling.  There have been times when we have had a problem with authority. When the church stood up for those who were disenfranchised or on the margins.  For example, when parts of the church stood up for civil rights.  You might say some of those people had a problem with authority, but Jesus called them into the vineyard and they went.  They went out to the margins, and they got attacked by dogs, sprayed by hoses, and even killed at times because it looked like they had a problem with authority. 

The question always comes back to whose authority.  The authority of this Jesus who calls us to a table with people with whom we never expected to eat.  This Jesus who calls us to share bread with one another.  That’s been the theme of the stewardship campaign over the past few weeks:  growing bread, making bread, and sharing bread, as we will today in Holy Communion.  The authority of the one who is somehow present to us in the simple elements of bread and juice.  It is in that sharing that we recognize the authority because he consumes us in this meal.  [The Bread for Communion is being baked in the kitchen during the worship service.] Can you smell the bread?  As we gather together at this table, we are opening ourselves up to Jesus’ authority.  Not an authority that rules with an iron fist, but one that rules by washing feet.  And authority that leads by serving, and calls us into service.

[1] Stanley Hauerwas, Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible:  Matthew, (Grand Rapids:  Brazos Press, 2006), p. 183.

[2] Kathryn D. Blanchard, “Theological Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year A, vol. 4, (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox, 2011), pp. 117-118.

[3] Lewis R. Donelson, “Exegetical Perspective,” Feasting, p. 121.

[4] Blanchard, “Theological Perspective,” Feasting, p. 116.

[5] Hauerwas, Matthew, p. 181.  Hauerwas says this much better than I did: “Victors in battle do not ride into their capital cities riding on asses, but rather they ride on fearsome horses.”

Back in 2007, you may remember an Amish community, where a man burst into their school and shot ten little girls.  Five of these little girls were killed in the shooting.  It was a terrible tragedy by any measure.  Yet, what people were blown away by was the forgiveness shown by that Amish community.  Their donations to the widow and children of the killers, and their presence at the burial of the one who perpetrated such violence against their community seemed unimaginable.  However, those Amish folks made it clear that their actions came as a result of their understanding of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ.[1]

Yet, even I imagine to some of us as fellow Christians, such forgiveness seems unimaginable.  This is where Jesus takes us this week.  Last week we considered what it means to handle discipleship as a community, with a disposition always towards reconciliation.  Peter’s question to Jesus immediately after Jesus’ counsel calls us now in these moments to struggle with the practical living out of a community that is always predisposed towards reconciliation.

Peter asks the question pointedly.  “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive?  As many as seven times?”  It is important to note that Peter’s suggestion is probably not meant as a literal limit.  Rather, since seven is a number of perfection in the Bible, Peter is more than likely asking something like, “Must I practice perfect forgiveness?”[2]  When Jesus responds “not seven times, but seventy-seven times,” or “seven times seven” depending on your translation, what he means is that our practice of forgiveness must be beyond perfect.[3] What Jesus means by this is that the very nature of the church as the body of Christ includes forgiveness even beyond what we can often imagine.

Yet, if you’re like me, you may be wondering, how can we really live like this?  If you’re not wondering that yet, think about some of the implications of such radical forgiveness.  Consider the Amish folks who lost all those little girls.  Or perhaps consider women or men who are being abused by their spouses.  What do Jesus’ words here mean for them?  Are they called to continually return to their abusive spouses?  Or what about registered sex offenders?  What happens when they want to become a part of the church’s fellowship?  How are we to receive them while still protecting the vulnerable persons among us, such as our youth and children?

What it comes down to is that our working understanding of what forgiveness means has real, tangible consequences in our lives.  Perhaps that is why Jesus felt it necessary to share a parable to clarify the character of forgiveness in the church.

My favorite novelist, Flannery O’Connor, said that when your audience does not share the same vision as you,

have to make your vision apparent by shock — to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost blind you draw large and startling figures.[4]

I think that is what Jesus is doing in this parable.  This parable, often called the “parable of the ungrateful servant” is particularly exaggerated.  The characters Jesus describes are drawn as caricatures, so that his point is abundantly clear.

Jesus compares the kingdom of heaven to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves.  The slave in the story owes his lord ten thousand talents.  “Ten thousand talents” suggests an absurd amount of money.  It would be likes you owing me a bagillion dollars.  Suffice it say, the slave owes the king a debt that cannot be paid by any circumstances.  Because he cannot pay his debt, his lord decides to sell the slave, his wife, and his children into prison in order for the payment to be made.  It was against Jewish law to sell someone into slavery, and while it was legal in Greek and Roman law, it was a seldom practiced.  This detail suggests that king in this parable is especially severe.[5]  Yet, the king’s severity makes his mercy towards the slave all the more surprising.

The slave pleads with his lord for more time, and the king unbelievably has mercy, not just giving the slave more time to pay, but also forgiving his servant’s unpayable debt.  The story then takes another surprising turn.  A fellow slave owes the first slave a hundred denarii.  This would be like me owing you fifty bucks.  Yet, even for this small amount the first slave puts a choke hold on his fellow slave because of the debt.  When this slave who owes such a relatively small debt appeals for mercy, the slave who received such mercy shows no mercy at all.  He throws his fellow slave in debtors’ prison until he can pay the debt.  Some other slaves see all this activity, and they report it to their lord.  Their lord turns severe again because he cannot believe that this slave could not show forth the mercy that he was shown.

The picture Jesus paints here is surprising.  The lord we encounter in this story is clearly like God, and we fellow slaves of our common are like the servants.  However, it is important also to recognize that the lord we encounter in the parable is not identical to God.  Thus, we should not get too hung up on the details of the lord in the parable torturing the slave.  Jesus paints his picture with such stark imagery to jolt us out of our normal routine in order to show us the surprising and counter-cultural nature of the church’s practice of forgiveness.

He is shouting because Peter and we are having a hard time understanding the nature of his kingdom.  He is drawing with large figures because Peter and we aren’t very good and seeing what the kingdom of heaven looks like.  What is most clear is that God’s forgiveness and our forgiveness of one another are related.  God’s forgiveness should effect in us forgiveness for others.  This is what we pray each week in the Lord’s prayer, that God would “forgive our trespasses as we forgive the trespasses of others.”

As we approach Jesus’ words more closely in context, as Jesus jolts us to attention, we receive a clearer vision of what forgiveness looks like in the Christian community.  Our forgiveness first and foremost flows of our deep sense of humility and gratitude.  We first understand ourselves as ones who have received gracious and undeserved mercy.  Therefore, when we encounter the sin of another, no matter how small or large the sin, we remember that it could be us.  We remember that in many cases it was us.  Recognizing this, we are moved towards understanding.  We are moved towards mercy.

Perhaps more accurately, that is how we should act.  In reality, we are not so merciful.  We forget what it is like to be the recipients of such grace and mercy as God has shown us.  Instead of holding on to one another in an embrace of love, we grab one another with a choke hold.

As a Christian community, we are called to the difficult and delicate task of holding in tension what we heard last week about community discipline with the community we hear about this week whose very life is shaped by an unending stream of forgiveness.  As one commentator notes, “The forgiveness Jesus calls for is inseparable from truth telling and accountability within the church.”[6]  It means that when the abused man or woman is in our midst, we do not simply send him or her back into the hands of the abuser to be hurt again.  Rather, we care for the abused and empower that person by taking one, then two or three, and then the whole church if necessary to deal with the abuser, always with the hope of reconciliation.  If the abuser will not repent, then we may be forced to submit the abuser to disciplinary action.  In this way the church cares for the abuser and the abused.

This commitment to a community that balances accountability and forgiveness is written into the promises we make when people are baptized in our midst.  We promise to

surround these persons with a community of love and forgiveness, that they may grow in their trust of God, and be found faithful in their service to others.  We will pray for them, that they may be true disciples who walk in the way that leads to life.[7]

The balance is between this “community of love and forgiveness” and our responsibility to help one another to be “true disciples who walk in the way that leads to life.”  To enter into this community is to enter into a community that will call us to costly grace, to a life of discipleship.  Yet, we also acknowledge that as we encourage one another towards growth in love of God and neighbor, we ourselves are recipients of an unimaginable and indescribable mercy.  This humbles us, and when we share that mercy and forgiveness with one another we create that community of love and forgiveness.  It is a community that knows that God welcomes us as we are, yet we are also a community that recognizes that God does not leave us that way.

The Gospel lesson for this morning, this thing we receive as good news, is that we aren’t as good and deserving as we think we are.  It chips away at our entitlement.  It chips away at our notion that we someone deserve the place in which we find ourselves.  It chips away our secret inklings that we are where we are because we are better than others.  It lays us bare before our Creator who we constantly run away from.  As the scales fall from our eyes, we see the way in which that same Creator constantly reaches out to us definitively in Jesus Christ, whose body of love and forgiveness consumes us as we consume the simple elements of bread and wine.

As we are consumed in this way, a mercy, a forgiveness, arises in this community that we never thought was possible.  It is not a forgiveness that allows us to take advantage of each other.  It is not a forgiveness that leaves the vulnerable more abused.  It is not to pretend that nothing has happened and move on. Forgiveness doesn’t mean we pretend we aren’t hurt.  It doesn’t even mean that we pretend that problematic and hurtful behaviors aren’t condemned.  Forgiveness means that we give up our desire for vengeance and retribution.[8]

This is what happens when we take Jesus seriously.  We look strange to the world around us.  This is why the Amish who forgave the one who murdered five of their little girls looked strange.  We may even look strange to each other, considering that many Christians, many of us, included were not sure we could be so faithful in the midst of such tragedy.  Yet, the forgiveness those Amish folks offered did not mean that they weren’t hurt.  There was an assumption by those watching the story that the forgiveness shown by the community suggested that the community members had quickly gotten over the tragedy.    This could not be further from the truth.  Many of the members of the community sought counseling, and I would imagine many of them continue to be affected by those events.  Yet, their forgiveness meant that they released this man and his family from the vengeance that many of us would demand in the face of such tragedy.[9]

Last week, I noted that one of the reasons that “binding and loosing” is a mark of the Body of Christ is that the church is called to be a sign and instrument of God’s glory in the world.  We are called to be a blessing to the world.  The kind of unbelievable forgiveness that is found in the life of the church has the effect of drawing the attention of the world around us.  Our reaction matters.  Our life as a community of love and forgiveness means that in the face of unimaginable hurt and pain, through the grace we find in Christ we find ourselves able to show unimaginable mercy.

This is an important thing for us to remember as we reflect on this tenth anniversary of the deaths in New York, Pennsylvania, and Washington, D.C.  There are all sorts of folks who are going to use this anniversary for their own agenda.  News companies will seek ratings, politicians will seek to score points by blaming one another, and those who speak words of hate will use the memories to spark hate and fear in our hearts.  There will be a lot of talking, a lot of words about these events.

Yet, what may be the best thing in these moments is silence.  It is in the silence where we meet ourselves as persons who have received an unimaginable mercy.  It is where we are confronted with our own tendencies towards hate and violence.  It is also where the Holy Spirit, who leads us into the truth that we are called to be this community of love and forgiveness, so that the world might know what God’s love and forgiveness look like.

If we are to take Jesus’ words seriously, what does our continuing response to the tragedy we experienced ten years ago look like?  How are we to get beyond agendas, be honest about our pain, and yet get beyond the feelings of vengeance that well up in us?  Put a different way, how do we find ourselves responding in a way that that is an alterative to putting our proverbial boot “you know where”?  The answer to this question is not easily arrived at.  I don’t think it’s an answer than any of us can arrive at on our own.

I think the beginning of the answer comes in Jesus’ call to a seventy-seven kind of forgiveness.  We, as this alterative community called the church as called to struggle with what it means to offer this same love and forgiveness even to those who we would consider our worst enemies.  It is not something I can do without you, nor you without me.  It must come out of our common agreement that our calling as disciples of Jesus Christ is to be part of a community where forgiving seventy-seven times is the rule, not the exception.

To move towards forgiveness is not to dishonor those whose lives were lost.  Rather, it is live authentically as the community created by the one who conquered death.  It is to speak life into the midst of a narrative that is dripping with death and violence.  It is not to suggest that such death and violence can be overcome.

Rather it is to speak authoritatively that such hate and violence has already been overcome by Jesus Christ, God’s decisive answer to a world fascinated by vengeance and death. 

The church’s character as a community of love and forgiveness is the witness that such a victory has already been achieved through our grace-assisted ability to live as such a community.  The church demonstrates that there is an alternative to the world as it is because it shows the world as it could be.

What made the forgiveness of the Amish so surprising and even appalling to so many people, even to us as fellow Christians is that we didn’t believe it was possible.  Despite what we might say, we didn’t really think that kind of love and forgiveness, that kind of seventy times seven, was possible.  What would it do to the world around us if the church were to take that kind of posture towards the tragic events we remember today?

We are humbled as we consider the gracious mercy offered to us.  Perhaps God in these reflective moments is calling us to consider how we might share such a gracious mercy with a world so full of pain, so full of hurt, so poisoned by a desire for vengeance.  This morning, I saw words on facebook from another pastor that I think ends a sermon that I wasn’t quite sure how to end.  She said, “God does have a way of combating evil. It’s not punishment and it’s not retaliation, fear or anger. It’s forgiveness. Forgiveness is God’s way of combating evil.”[10]

[1] Joseph Shapiro, “Amish Forgive School Shooter, Struggle with Grief,” NPR News,, (October 2, 2007) cited September 11, 2011.

[2] Lewis R. Donelson, “Exegetical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year A, vol. 4, (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox, 2011), p. 69.

[3] Donelson, “Exegetical Perspective,” Feasting, p. 69.

[4] Flannery O’Connor, “The Fiction Writer and His Country” The Collected Works of Flannery O’Connor, (New York: Library of America, 1988)

[5] Ibid., p. 71.

[6] Charles Cambell, “Homiletical Perspective,” Feasting, p. 71.

[7] “Baptismal Covenant I,” United Methodist Hymnal, (Nashville:  UM Publishing House, 1989), p. 35.

[8] Marjorie J. Thompson, “Moving Toward Forgiveness,” Weavings, March-April 1992, p. 19.  Cited in Charlotte Dudley Cleghorn, “Pastoral Perspective,” Feasting, p. 72.

[9] Shapiro, “Amish Forgive School Shooter,” NPR, cited September 11, 2011.

[10] Nadia Bolz-Weber, Facebook post, cited on September 11, 2011.

Last week, in order to consider the answer to “Who do you say that I am,” I had to “dip” into this week’s reading because as Jesus’ identity comes into focus as the Messiah, the Son of God, Jesus begins to explain to the disciples what being the Messiah, the Son of God actually looks like.  So, we have encountered a little bit of what we find here.  Jesus describes the way in which he is head towards suffering, the cross, and resurrection.  He then describes that he expects nothing less than our willingness to follow him there:

If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.  For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life? (Matthew 16: 24-26)

Notice again what is happening.  As Jesus reveals who he is, we begin to get a better sense of who we are supposed to be.  This is where we start to get uncomfortable.  How can I be this person?  How can we be this kind of people?  It all seems too much, doesn’t it?  This seems like a like of work for people who are supposed to be saved by grace alone, doesn’t it?  But that depends on how you understand grace.

Grace is a tough word.  It is a word that is thrown out a lot when church folks get together.  “We are saved by grace alone.”  “God’s grace is sufficient.”  “We receive God’s grace in the sacraments.”  Grace is definitely one of those “church” words.  And that isn’t a bad thing.  It is not a bad thing for the church to have a distinctive language.  It is not easy to just walk into church and be a Christian.  Even folks who would say they have been Christians their whole lives would be able to say that.  In fact, they might assert it more strongly.

To be a Christian is to learn a new language.  Our experiences in this Christian community call the church are shaped by Scripture as well as the traditions of the church passed down to us.  The reason we are giving our third graders Bibles today is to help them in the process of learning the Christian language.

Not only is there a verbal language, but also there is a language of gestures and actions that are shaped by our participation in this community.  Outside of the church baptism makes no sense.  We say some words and dump some water on a person.  Big deal, right?  Just as importantly, serving vulnerable people is given a different meaning.  We are not doing it only out of sympathy.  The folks receiving help are not objects of pity.  They are not just people we help to feel better about ourselves.

In this community Baptism is our initiation into this new family that is the body of Christ.  In this community we are in ministry with vulnerable people because we recognize in each of them the image of God.  We are called to love God, and because we love God, we love what God loves, which are our neighbors.  We recognize that our neighbors are none other than Jesus Christ beckoning to us.  To grow as a Christian is to learn a new language of words and action.

Grace can mean a lot of things to a lot of people, but our understanding of grace is distinctly shaped by our participation in the body of Christ.  When we divorce it from that life, we again run the risk of creating a false idol, grace that looks like whatever we want it to.  I don’t know if you’ve noticed a theme, but we are still pretty good at creating idols for ourselves.  They may not be fashioned out of wood or stone, but they are still as pernicious as ever.

What, then, does grace look like?  Grace is the power and presence of God.[1]  Grace is gratuitous.  God’s grace is freely given to us, even though we do not deserve it. However, just because we don’t deserve it, and just because it is feely offered to all, doesn’t mean that God doesn’t require anything of us in return. Yet, that is what often passes for grace.  That is what the theologian and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer described as “cheap grace.”  In this scheme, according to Bonhoeffer,

Grace is represented as the Church’s inexhaustible treasury, from which she showers blessings with generous hands, without asking questions or fixing limits.  Grace without price; grace without cost![2]

The logic essentially goes that because grace is freely offered to us, our reception of grace need have little or no effect on the shape our lives.  Whatever we do is covered by grace.  Yet, this seems to be exactly the opposite of what we encounter in our scripture for this morning.  Picking up our cross and following Christ does not sound like an encounter with Jesus Christ that requires no response.  Losing our lives so that we might find them does not sound like an encounter with Jesus Christ where our regular activity remains separated from our faith, where our activities remain relatively unaffected.

This is where learning a new language comes in.  The church often finds itself misunderstood by the world because we can somehow come to the conclusion that to pick up our cross and follow Christ, to deny ourselves is actually the character and shape of grace.  Think about the hymn we sang at the beginning of the service:  “Lift High the Cross.”  The cross to us is a sign of victory.  To everyone else, this was a sign of execution.  It was a sign of death.  To wear a cross in Jesus’ time would be as if we were wearing little electric chairs around our necks now.  Yet, because and only because it is where Jesus died,  it is a sign of victory.  We see victory in the cross because when Jesus was resurrected, he conquered death.  The sign of death then becomes a sign of life.  This does not make sense outside of the community called the Church.

If we let our desire to be respectable in the eyes of the world consume us, we let the world set the agenda for what grace is.  Our understanding of grace only comes through our answer to Jesus’ question, “Who do you say that I am?”  We can only understand grace because know Jesus.  When we truly encounter Jesus, and we see him for who he is, we begin to realize there is a cost.  Yet, because it is Jesus, we are willing to do anything to follow him.  We don’t care about the cost.  It is the kind of grace that causes a fisherman to drop his nets, abandon everything he knows.  Cheap grace is grace that requires nothing of us because it is grace without Jesus Christ.

The grace we are talking about, as Bonhoeffer says is “costly because it is calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ.”[3]  The grace offered to us in Jesus Christ is costly because it requires our whole lives.  This is the character of losing our lives in order to find it.  We aren’t just throwing our lives away.  We are losing ourselves into Jesus Christ’s life.  If it weren’t Jesus Christ, it wouldn’t be grace because no one else can make such a call on our lives.  Most importantly, as Bonhoeffer points out, “it is costly because it cost God the life of his son…[but] above all it is grace because did not reckon his Son too dear a price to pay for our life, but delivered him up for us.”[4]

The way we understand grace can make a lot of difference in the way our lives move forward.  Grace is good news. But it isn’t good news because it means that we can go on as we please.  Rather, it is good news because it comes to us as God’s gift for us to become the kind of people God created us to be.  We do not find cheap grace in Jesus Christ.  Rather, as John Wesley suggested, Jesus Christ’s commands are covered promises.[5]

It is true that much is required.  It is true that to be a disciple of Jesus Christ is costly.  Indeed, our whole lives are required.  It is a call to follow Jesus Christ to the cross.  It is a call to lose our lives.  For goodness sakes, Jesus tells us that we are to be perfect as his heavenly Father is perfect!  It sounds like an impossible task.  And it would be if it weren’t for grace.  Real grace, costly grace, is inseparable from Jesus’ commands because it is our reception of Jesus’ grace that enables us to grow into the kind of people who can live out those commands.

We are a people who believe in responsible grace.[6]  God offers grace to all freely, yet God expects a response.  We wouldn’t know how badly we need Jesus without grace, yet when we are convinced of how mired in sin we are, we are called to repentance.  We say “yes,” to Jesus.  Whether that is a dramatic moment we can remember or whether we grew up in the church and gradually came to faith in Christ, our “yes” is not the last word.

God is not done with us.  Conversion is not a one time event.  The life of a Christian is a life of constantly being more and more converted into a disciple of Jesus Christ.  That is what we United Methodists call sanctification.  At every moment of growth, we realize how much more growing we have to do.  As we become more and more familiar with the language of being a Christian, the more we realize how much more we have to learn about loving God and loving our neighbors.

Grace is offered as the channel through which Christ shines more brightly in our lives.  What does it look like to live as people who are the recipients of costly grace?  It takes practice.  And where does such practice come?  It comes in the liturgy of the church through which we pass in worship each week.  Think of a rough rock made smooth as water passes over it. The practices of the liturgy and the grace of Jesus Christ makes us smooth, less resistant to Christ’s call. Week in and week out, our gathering for worship may not always be incredible.  Every sermon may not have Ricky Bobby in it. Yet, over time, we are smoothed out for Jesus.

When we leave the church, we are prepared to live as a Christian in the world.  Think of the liturgy like improvisational comedy.  When you go to an improv show, everything looks like it is done off the cuff.  Yet, improv only comes after practicing the games that make improv work.  We are trained in the liturgy and strengthened by Christ’s grace in such as way that we can improv Christian responses to situations we encounter.

Discipleship is no different.  Learning to carry our cross.  Learning to lose our lives.  This comes as we gather together, to hear the stories of who we are, to pray, to pass peace, to sing the hymns of our faith, to remind ourselves of who Jesus is, so that we can be reminded of who he calls us to be.  Most importantly, as we practice what a Christian life looks like in worship, we receive the ultimate help because we share in Holy Communion, which John Wesley described as that “grand channel” of God’s grace.[7]  We are nourished by Christ’s body and blood through the power of the Holy Spirit, so that when we move out into the world we live as if we really believe that Jesus is who we say he is when we recite the creeds.

Christ offers us grace.  Because we are members of the body of the one who offers us grace, we ourselves become instruments of his grace.  Not instruments of cheap grace.  Grace the shows the world that Jesus is that treasure in the field that we sell everything to buy.  As instruments of grace we become channels, sacramental people through which good news is proclaimed to the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, and the oppressed to go free.

In a world that seems rocked by earthquakes, blown around by hurricanes, made low by crashing stock markets, we have the incredible task of proclaiming the year of the Lord’s favor.  This isn’t going to make sense to a lot of people, but it may make a difference in the lives of many people.

The danger here is that since we understand grace as a call on our lives and the lives of our brothers and sisters in the church, we may lose patience if we don’t see the progress that we think we should in others.  To live as a Christian is to hold in tension holding one another accountable with the reality that we are all on the way towards being the people God calls us to be.  It means that we cannot lord accountability over one another as a way to put one another down or assert dominance over one another.  It is not a way to shame people we don’t like out of the church.

Rather, being instruments of grace means we get close enough to one another, that we love one another enough, to help one another on the journey. It means that when we pick up our cross, we do not do so alone.  It means that when we lose our lives, we are drawn into the lives of others because we become members of a body that is larger than ourselves.  At the end of the day, costly grace means that we enter together into a love worth dying for.

[1] Randy L. Maddox, Responsible Grace, (Nashville:  Abingdon Press, 1994), pp. 84-87.

[2] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, 1995 Touchstone Edition, (New York:  MacMillan, 1959) p. 43.

[3] Bonhoeffer, Discipleship, p. 45.

[4] Ibid.

[5] John Wesley, “Upon Our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount V,” §2.3, John Wesley’s Sermons:  An Anthology, (Nashville:  Abingdon Press, 1991), p. 211.

[6] Maddox, Responsible Grace, p. 86.

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