Theology and Culture

I have a friend who is good at working with his hands, especially with wood.  He’s so good with wood, in fact, that his pastor asked him to build a large cross for use during a Lenten program his church is doing called 24 Hours by a United Methodist Minister named Adam Hamilton.  What I love about my friend is that as he began to plan out this work, he began to wonder what it must have taken to build one of these things in the time when they were the torture and execution preference of the Roman government.

He began to research the kinds of tools that would have been used to craft one of these horrible devices, and to see if there were ways he might be able to replicate some of the methods.  He wanted to see how authentic he could make it.  When he told me about this, I told him that he really ought to create a blog to track such a project.  What a journey it must be during the Lenten season to actually build a cross.  Why did I find this project so compelling?

I found it compelling because the cross, the cross that we “lift high” the cross that we “take up,” is one of the central symbols of who we are as Christians.[1]  We may not agree on much with some other groups of Christians, but most every Christian group has a cross somewhere in their church.  And those churches who have completely removed crosses from their sanctuaries because they bum their congregations out too much did so to great cries of concern from brother and sister churches.  But generally, there are crosses everywhere.  There are crosses on my stole.  There are crosses on the altar.  Many of you have crosses hung from your necks. There are crosses all around our church.  We have a cross over the altar that is metal.  The cross in the fellowship hall is wooden. The crosses on my stole are made of thread.

There are crosses everywhere at our church and at most churches.  We bear this cross as a mark of our identity.  We bear the cross as a mark of who we are and whose we are.  The cross is a rich symbol that carries a multitude of meanings within itself.  Many of us bear oil crosses on our forehead at our baptism as a sign of the sealing of the Holy Spirit’s presence in our lives.  Just a week ago we bore ash crosses on our foreheads as a sign both of our mortality and marking us as ones who have entered into Christ’s death, so that we might have a share in his resurrection.  Crosses are everywhere…and yet…

To see what my friend is doing, slowing down and considering the creation of this cross, I wonder in our multitude of cross, if a large share of those meanings of the cross has been lost on us?  We also experience crosses as ubiquitous.  They are everywhere.  The easy shot to take here would be at rappers who wear large ornate diamond studded crosses, which, compared to the Old Rugged Cross are riddled with irony.  But let’s step back from the easy shot and turn the camera back on ourselves.  It is easy enough to point fingers at other people who wear crosses, but don’t follow through with lives that seem to be Cross and Christ-shaped.  What about us, who wear these crosses around our neck, who set them in our places of gathering and worship, who actually claim to be ones who recognize and embrace this cross as a symbol of our redemption?

Do we grasp fully the depth of what it means to bear the cross?  Do we grasp fully the depth of what it means to wear, to accessorize with the cross.  It is an object that is an instrument of execution and death.  What does it mean to accessorize with an instrument of torture?  If were to translate it into contemporary terms, if we saw someone wearing a little needle or a little electric chair around their necks we would receive that persson bearing such objects as jewelry as at best having a sick sense of humor and at worst having some deep-seated issues.  Why would you wear an instrument of death and execution around your neck?  Why would we lift it high?  One of the first gifts Mary Alex received on the day of her baptism was a little cross around her neck.  Why would we do that?  How are we to handle this?

Perhaps that a cross would be received at a baptism may help us to understand how it comes to be that we wear this object of death, this instrument of pain, around our necks.  Our baptism is the place where we God claims us and grace begins to work in us.  When we respond to that grace, we begin the life of discipleship.  The Gospel lesson today is really about what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ.  Jesus begins to describe to the disciples that he must undergo suffering, rejection, and death.  Peter won’t stand for this.  Mark tells us that Peter “pulls Jesus aside,” and tries to rebuke Jesus privately.  As we have seen before, this isn’t the kind of Messiah Peter was looking for.

Yet, to deny this piece of Jesus’ life is to become an adversary, which is what the word and name “Satan” literally means.  And so Jesus rebukes Peter publicly.  Further, Jesus doesn’t just tell the disciples, but he tells the whole crowd exactly what it means to be a follower, to be a disciple.  It is to deny ourselves and take up our cross and follow him.  When we respond to the grace of our baptism that is the beginning of discipleship, and it is the beginning of we picking up our cross and beginning to follow Jesus.

Lent is the perfect time to begin to consider what it means to reflect on picking up our crosses because it is the season where we intentionally focus on our discipleship in way that we often don’t during the rest of the year.  Lent is the time when we become the most conscious of Jesus’ call to take up our cross because it is the time when we are following him to his cross.  This has been true in the church for a long time. In the early church, those who were preparing to be baptized would be the most focused on what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ.  About the responses they would give and the actions they would take in their baptism.  40 days seems like a long time to wait for a baptism, but in reality it took more like 2 or 3 years of preparation before a person could be baptized and be a part of the church.  Before you could be baptized, you had to learn how to live and act like a Christian.

We tend to think of it in the reverse, with the heart experience leading our changed behaviors.  However, in the early church, changing of one’s behavior was part and parcel of the change they were experiencing in their heart.  So, by the time the Lent before their baptism rolled around, they had already been reflecting on what it means to be a disciple, to take up their cross and follow Christ.  Lent was a deeper, intentional time leading up to their full reception of life in the church and their first admittance to receive Holy Communion.  Lent was a time when they would prepare to answer questions that are pretty close to what we who are baptized have answered ourselves.[2]

“Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness?”[3]  That’s first question we ask when we are baptizing someone.  In the early church, they would actually have to face the west and renounce “Satan and all his pomp.”  As we join Jesus in the wilderness, we encounter the temptations.  But the temptation isn’t just to do explicitly evil things.  No, the temptations we experience are much more sinister.  After all, Jesus’ rebuke to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan!” isn’t because Peter is asking Jesus to go out and steal from other people.  No, Peter wants Jesus to be the kind of Messiah that is the conquering the Romans and ruling the world sort of Messiah.  He wants Jesus to take over.  He wants to be part of the people who run things.  He wants to rule the Romans.  It is the kind of dominance we see Satan offer Jesus in the wilderness in the other Gospels.

It’s that kind of dominance that we still tempted with.  The temptation to skip all of that suffering stuff and just get to Easter.  The temptation to try to keep our own security and power in the world by trying o take over things, forcing others to see things our way, as opposed to offering up all the power we think we have to be weak in Jesus, who rules the world by suffering and dying on a cross.  It is that kind of control that Jesus rejects in the wilderness, and it is the kind of control that leads Jesus to see Peter as an adversary.

The next question we ask is, “Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil?”[4]  The freedom and the power God gives us to resist evil.  This question assumes that we need both freedom and power to resist evil.  The General Rules of the United Methodist Church basically say, “Do no harm,” “Do good,” and “Attend Upon the Ordinances of God.”  In addition to simply feeding people who are hungry, we begin to ask why they are hungry in the first place.  Are there structural things in our society that keep people hungry, that keep them in poverty?

I guarantee you when we begin to resist those structures, not everyone will take kindly to it.  We need freedom and power to resist evil in the world because to do that means not just that we “behave” ourselves, but it actually may mean getting into some trouble.  It will mean bearing a cross and being rejected by many.  It means we will look different.  We will look weird.  We will not fit in.

The third question we ask is, “Do you confess Jesus Christ as your Savior and promise to serve him as your Lord?”[5]  To do this means that we pick up our cross, that we are willing to following Jesus in that cross bearing.  It isn’t just an intellectual assent or an emotional change in our lives, but it is a re-ordering of our lives based on Jesus’ love those who are the “least of these.”  It means that we are willing to resist evil by changing the way that we live in the world.

The final question we ask is, “Will you remain faithful members of Christ’s holy Church and serve as Christ’s representatives in the world?”[6]  What does it mean to do that?  Jesus tells us exactly what it means in our Gospel lesson this morning.  Lose our life for the sake of others, and for the sake of the Gospels.  Deny ourselves in favor of others is how we represent Jesus.  In short, that is what it means to be a faithful member of Christ’s Holy Church and be his representative in the world.  We do this because in losing our life we actually find it, rather than being ashamed of this Savior who seems so weak that we have to make him look strong.

In my opinion, one of the scariest movements today in many Christian circles is one that suggests that Jesus has become too weak and too “feminized.”  Jesus is just not strong enough , and so they want to emphasize what they see as Jesus’ more masculine traits, with paintings in their churches of Jesus whipping the money-changers out of the temple.  The problem with that interpretation is that Jesus doesn’t fit into the categories that we want to create for him and for ourselves.  Jesus’ power is made perfect in weakness, and so ours is.  Jesus conquers the world by saving it with his own weakness.

To bear our cross, to take up our cross, is a paradox now, even as it was in Jesus time.  Even as it is a symbol of government oppression and execution, we also experience it as a sign of Jesus’ victory.  Peter was horrified at what Jesus said because it is a paradox that the one who is the Messiah, this Son of Man the one who came to save Israel and the world would do so by suffering and dying.

In the same way the cross stands as this paradox that we would “lift high” the cross.  That this symbol of death, pain, and torture could become a symbol of love.  A symbol of victory.  A symbol of life.  How powerful is that this instrument of death could become a sign of life and victory?  A stumbling block the Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles, right?  It is the just the same as the paradox that we find our lives by losing them for the sake of one another and the sake of the Gospel.

It is the same kind of paradox that will allow us later in the service to sing about Christ’s life, death, and resurrection as a “dance.”  Read the word when we sing “Lord the Dance,” later in the service.  It is a very upbeat, even whimsical tune, that folks love to sing, but it is describing in some parts events that are horrible.  Yet, we sing it joyfully because in it we hear the story of our life that comes through Christ’s life, death, and resurrection.  The difference between wearing a cross around our necks and wearing a little electric chair is that the cross has been transformed by the one who hung upon it, and the one who calls us and helps us to bear our crosses in the world.

[1] Paul C. Shupe, “Pastoral Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 2, (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox, 2008), p. 68.

[2] “Worship Notes – Calendar,” United Methodist General Board of Discipleship Lectionary Planning Helps, Online:, cited March 4, 2012.

[3] United Methodist Hymnal, “Baptismal Covenant I,” (Nashville: United Methodist Publishing House, 1989), p. 34.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

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.

There is a new video that has been floating around facebook and twitter this week. I have seen countless friends and colleagues approvingly posting and commenting on the video. Yet, I find myself troubled that we are sinking into the usual false and (fruitless) dichotomy between “spirituality” and “religion” or “Jesus by himself” and “religion.” I’ll admit that this guy can rap well, but I believe several of his arguments might be ill communication (Hey that’s like rap, right!?) I realize by using ill to mean “whack,” I leave myself open for the same criticism as Will Shortz.

It is unclear what this guy means by the “religion” that Jesus came to abolish. He doesn’t mean the Law, does he? Jesus didn’t come to abolish the Law. This is certain by Jesus’ own admission (Matt. 5.17). What does he mean by religion? Does he mean that all religion is in the realm of pretending? It’s just not clear to me.

It’s true that Jesus did receive opposition from religious people, but it doesn’t mean he didn’t practice his religion. He was a faithful Jewish man who participated in Synagogue and observed the holy days of his community. I don’t this guy is making that distinction. As a friend of mine points out: St. Augustine tells us that the word religion comes from the word “ligare” (“connection”/”ligament”). He points out that “Religion is being reconnected with or re-bound to God.” As the same friend says, through Jesus, we are “religioned” to God. And I would add we are “religioned” to each other through our baptism.

It doesn’t work to make Jesus a vigilante superhero out on his own in the name of individuals being saved. Jesus grew up as a part of a community, living into the practices of that community, and when he began his ministry he began to assemble a community around him made up of people who were both part of his community who were Jews, while extending the community to Gentiles. This rapper/poet has divorced Jesus from his community, to those people with whom he practiced his faith.

After making some comments about Christians not needing to be Republicans (no argument there, though I would add nor do they need to be Democrats), he goes on to send up of a volley of the usual indictments of “religion.” Starting wars. Building up infrastructures while people who go hungry. Casting out those people whom Jesus would likely want to be his bosom friends.

This is all true, but it doesn’t mean that people who are “spiritual” or who “just like Jesus” don’t do this either. Rather, he fails to understand the church as the place where sinners come to get sanctified. It should be no surprise that in a motely crew such as this that some trouble might be stirred up. Yet, that is our story. That is who we have been all along, and the good news is that God is always calling us back. But God doesn’t call us back on our own. God calls us back together so that we might experience reconciliation.

The rapper/poets’s next comment really gets my gander. He claims that God calls “religious” people “whores.” While it is true that God does accuse Israel of playing the whore, it isn’t clear that this is because they are “religious.” Rather, God is typically speaking about the worship of other gods or the failure of the Israel to care for the orphan and widow, the most vulnerable among them. On the first count, they are “religioning” themselves to other Gods (Hosea 9.1). On the second, they are failing to “religion” themselves to vulnerable persons (Amos 5.21). But they aren’t whores just because they are part of a worshiping community who follows the Law.

He accuses religious people of failing to fix their problems and masking them. I wasn’t aware that any of us were able to fix our problems on our own. This is why the church was created to be a community. We were created to live in a community of love and forgiveness, where the Holy Spirit and one another can help each other grow in love of God and neighbor. It may be very clever to say that religion is like spraying perfume on a casket, assuming that those who practice the same thing regularly are faking it.

I would argue instead that there are times when we all have trouble holding ourselves up, and it is at that very moment when we need our brothers and sisters the most. We need them to say the words of the creed for us when we can’t say them ourselves. Sometimes, it is all we can do to come and say the words, lay ourselves before God, and let his body and blood enter into us as he draws us into him over and over again.

He criticizes religion for being only “behavior modification.” I don’t think that this is entirely wrong, but I’m not clear about why it is a bad thing. If our beliefs and our actions are intimately tied together, then religion properly practiced finds us living out our faith practically. This seems to be what this guy wants, yet he is bashing it here. What is the “core” he speaks about? Is it just believing the right thing? If it is, he might want to check himself before he wrecks himself because he’s contradicting himself (See that was like Ice Cube).

Seriously. I wouldn't mess with Ice Cube.

He then claims “not to be judgin’,” but then of course he does just that with his “just sayin’.” You are “judgin’” rapper dude. You are doing the same thing that you accuse “religious” people of doing. You are creating insiders and outsiders based on your own set of criteria, rather than the Scripture and Tradition of the Church passed down from the apostles. If I can’t rap and I like the regularity of the liturgy for the changing of my life, I don’t fit your mold.

No real argument with him that the church should be a “hospital for the broken.” Yet, he seems to often equate “religion” with being part of the “church.” He confesses he is one of those who was fake in the church, and acted like a different person each week. Yet, is that part and parcel of being religious? I would argue that “spiritual” people like being spiritual because it doesn’t require them to make any concrete changes in their lives. It sounds like the rapper/poet has been “religioned” to God in a new way. Good for him. But I’m still not sure that means that Jesus doesn’t like religion or the church (which, I’m not sure how or if these equate for this guy). I just don’t think Jesus likes fakers. Nor does the rapper/poet. On this, we agree, but it sounds like we are defining religion differently.

He next returns to the age-old suggestion that before Jesus came, all those poor Jewish people just followed rules all the time and life was terrible for them. Then, Thank God, Jesus came and got rid of all the rules. Except, that as I said, Jesus didn’t come to do away with the Law, he came to fulfill it. He didn’t come to do away with the rules, he came to make it possible for us to follow them. It is nearly anti-Semitic to suggest that all those Jews were miserable rule-followers before Jesus. If that is true, then how does Psalm 119 exist? Over a hundred verses about the beauty of the gift that is God’s Law.

Further, Jesus didn’t get rid of the commands. He made them more demanding. Has this guy read the Sermon on the Mount? Yet, as John Wesley said, Jesus’ commands are covered promises. Whatever Jesus asks us to do, he provides grace sufficient for it to happen. But it is an historical and theological error to suggest that the Jewish faith was a dead faith full of empty rules. Jesus practices a Jewish faith. He did call out some of the practices that had gone awry, but he didn’t get rid of all of them.

The rapper/poet seems to equate “religion” with “hypocrisy.” It is true that Jesus didn’t stand for this. Rapper/poet guy says he loves the church, but it isn’t clear to me that he’s doing a lot to get people to come near the church and be the leaven within. It seems like he’s giving a lot of reasons for folks never even to come in (that rhymed, just saying.)

How is it that religion is a man-made invention? Are the practices of the church what the invention is? He says, “Religion says do,” “Jesus says, done.” It appears that we feel here the eschatological pinch between the “already,” and the “not yet.” Rather than the “either/or” of the rapper/poet, the reality is that we experience it as “both/and.” Jesus says both “do” and “done.” Jesus has won the victory, yet we are responsible for living as he commanded us to through his grace in the mean time. That’s what all those parables are for, like the parable of the talents, the wedding banquet, etc.

He also says religion makes us “slaves” while Jesus sets us “free.” I think Scripture would affirm that actually what happens is that we find out that we were serving the wrong master. That’s why Paul calls himself a slave to Jesus all the time. We aren’t freed to do whatever we want, we’re freed to do the right thing because we are serving him instead of false gods.

“Religion is man searching for God. Christianity is God searching for man.” First of all, what about women, dude? Second, this is a nice contrast, but what exactly does it mean? Where does it come from? It appears religion for this guy has something to do with works righteousness trying to get to God, whereas Christianity is salvation by grace. I’m not sure where his definitions come from, though I think I have heard it expressed this way before (references welcome). However, I don’t think that religion has to mean works righteousness. I prefer to think of grace drawing us in, so that we want to understand and seek after what we believe. St. Anselm called this “Faith seeking Understanding.”

I guess what it comes down to is that this guy did a pretty clever video with a decent rhyme. The only issue is that he falls into his own trap. He spends a lot of time talking about how bad a certain group of people are, the “religious” folk. The problem is that he’s bringing down the same judgment on them that he criticizes them for bringing on others. He also doesn’t seem to have a very good understanding of what religion actually means. Again, it seems to have something to do with works righteousness and hypocrisy, but that doesn’t have to be what religion means. It might just mean practicing what we preach, which rapper/poet guy is all about.

The Church is not perfect, but the Holy Spirit created it and upholds it. Jesus is often painted as a lone ranger destroying a dead Jewish faith, but that is not who he was. He was a faithful Jew, and God’s covenant with the Jews isn’t abolished either. Since this guy likes quoting Romans at the end of his video, he might want to consider flipping to chapter 11.

The last thing I can’t abide by is the smugness. People who hate on what they want to call “religion” always do it in a way that makes them seem better, more insightful, and more faithful that “religious” people. That’s self-righteousness, dude. “Not to be judgin’,” but I’m pretty sure you just rapped something about that being a problem.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[2] Ibid.

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

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

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

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

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

[8] Ibid.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next Page »