Sermon–October 2, 2011–Pentecost 16A

Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost A
Preached at First Evangelical Lutheran Church, Muskegon, MI, while on Internship.

Isaiah 5:1-7
Psalm 80:7-15
Philippians 3:4b-14
Matthew 21:33-46

One of my all-time favorite movies is the 1980 classic “The Blues Brothers”, starring Dan Aykroyd and the late John Belushi. I was raised a Chicago boy, so the movie practically flows through my veins.

The movie follows the story of “Joliet” Jake and Elwood Blues, the “Blues Brothers”, as they seek to save their childhood home from foreclosure. The boys were raised in a Catholic orphanage under the strict watch of Sister Mary Stigmata, whom everyone calls the “Penguin”. She tried her hardest to teach them to lead moral and upright lives, but apparently, her lessons never stuck. When the boys come to visit her, she claims that “the two young boys I taught to believe the Ten Commandments have come back to me with filthy mouths, and bad attitudes.”

Undeterred by the Penguin’s warnings, Elwood is confident that the two brothers will raise the $5000 in property taxes that the orphanage needs because they are on a “mission from God.” The brothers round up the members of their old band, the “Blues Brothers’ Show Band and Revue”, and set off in the new Bluesmobile to earn the money—but never quite legitimately.

Along the way, getting into trouble, of course, they earn the wrath of the Illinois State Police, another band, a mystery woman who keeps trying to kill them, and of course, the Illinois Nazis. Yet through it all, Elwood is confident that they will still be able to make enough money to save the orphanage. After all, they are on a “mission from God.” Through blackmail they even manage to land a gig that earns them more than enough to pay the orphanage’s property taxes.

In the film’s climactic chase scene, the Blues Brothers race 106 miles to Chicago with a full tank of gas, half a pack of cigarettes, in the dark, while wearing sunglasses. After causing a massive police car pileup, they race into the city, and wouldn’t you know it, they actually get the money to the Cook County Assessor’s office in time and save the orphanage. After which they are immediately arrested and handcuffed by the combined forces of the Illinois State Police, the Chicago Police, the SWAT team, and the National Guard.

The Penguin was right in her warnings—I can imagine her, like in Isaiah this morning, wondering, “what more was there to do… that I had not done?” She raised the Blues Brothers, but instead of becoming good Catholic men, they turned out to be thieves, blackmailers, extortionists, and all around bums. But they still believed things would work out because they were “on a mission from God.”

God’s point of view then is easy to see in our readings for this morning. In both the reading from Isaiah and the reading from Matthew, God’s preparations in the world are compared to a vineyard. All of the proper preparations are made: a good fertile hill is chosen, the soil is extensively prepared, only the very best vines are planted. A wall and watchtower are built to keep it safe, even an expensive winepress is built in anticipation of the coming good harvest. There really wasn’t anything more God could do to prepare the vineyard for a good harvest.

In Matthew, this grand undertaking is lent to a few chosen farmers, who need only to take care of it and give a portion of the good fruits back to the owner. There is nothing odd in this request—the arrangement was actually quite common, and still occurs around the world to this day.

Things start to get off track though when the farmers react violently to those sent to collect what the owner is rightly owed. Who knows why they think that by killing all of the owner’s slaves and then his son they will then inherit the vineyard. It’s absurd. It’s ridiculous. But they take for granted that this is their vineyard to do with as they please. It’s a gross injustice that they are committing against the owner.

And yet as I laugh and scoff at the stupidity of the farmers, I can’t help but remember why Jesus told the parable in the first place. Jesus is quite clever in his telling of the story.

The story enrages the Pharisees, who pronounce their judgment on the wicked farmers.
And in the process, they pronounce that same judgment on themselves. They had been given charge over God’s vineyard, and in time, came to believe themselves the sole owners. They believed that they had earned the right to take the vineyard away from God, who put all of that effort into it. They believed that if they could silence those who claimed to speak for God (and honestly, who believes those people anyway) then there would be no more challenges to their ownership of what God had given them. They were “on a mission from God.”

Put those miserable wretches to death! they say. And the finger turns right back around on them. So even as I too pass judgment on these clearly corrupt, evil farmers, I have to stop and wonder… am I condemning myself?

Well, yes, I am. Studying the Bible has really forced me to be honest with myself. I do a lot of stupid things in life. We all do. Is a single one of us perfect? No, of course not. Heck, if Paul wasn’t perfect, I know I’m not. We live by the grace of God.

It’s very easy for us to take that grace of God for granted. When this country was founded, it believed that it had a “Manifest Destiny”. This land was our land, from sea to shining sea, no matter who else was in the way. A lot of horrible atrocities were committed in the name of God, because we believed it was our right. This was our vineyard to do with as we pleased, our mission, and “God bless America!”

And today, we still perpetuate injustice around the world through war and the refusal to stand up for justice. We are oblivious to our warped view of the world. A quote I read earlier this week says:

“If this is going to be a Christian nation that doesn’t help the poor, either we have to pretend that Jesus was just as selfish as we are, or we’ve got to admit that Jesus commanded us to love the poor and serve the needy without condition and then admit that we just don’t want to do it.”

We still have a long way to go, but in that respect, we aren’t much different than the rest of humanity.Are we without hope? Are we destined to be a vineyard trampled and overgrown?

The more I read the lessons for this week, the more confused I became. The loss of the vineyard seemed total, absolute, driven by God’s wrath. The protective hedge is removed. The walls are broken down. The vineyard is left to grow over. The weeds grow and choke the vines with thorns. Even the rain refuses to fall. The Pharisees rightly condemn the wicked tenants to death.

But wait… the Pharisees condemn the farmers to death.

If I was the owner of this vineyard, and the tenants beat my slaves, you can bet that, being as rich as I am, a nice number of mercenaries would suddenly find themselves employed. I would have sent armed men to the tenants and forced them to give me what belonged to me—resistance would be met with swift punishment. I would have acted exactly as the Pharisees predicted.

Instead, we have a very peculiar owner in this story. When the first slaves are beaten and killed, he gives the farmers another chance. And again, when those slaves are killed, he gives them another chance. When the vineyard in Isaiah produces sour grapes, God removes the vineyard’s protection, but takes no direct action against the vines, the people of Israel and Judah.

The psalm writer this morning does not hope in vain when he asks God to “have regard for this vine.” There is still hope for the vine and the vineyard. God keeps trying. God doesn’t give up. Even when the old building falls down, a new cornerstone is laid and a new house is built.

If there was one truth about the Bible that I wish I could get across to everyone I meet, it’s that throughout all of history, God wants desperately to be in a relationship with us. God loves. Which also means that God hurts. We hurt God. Yet every time—every time that we do something to break God’s heart, God comes back for us.

God cries when we do nothing about injustice in our world. God mourns when we oppress our neighbors. God weeps when we don’t even acknowledge that what we do is so painful.

And every time, God musters up the strength to take us back when we finally realize what we’ve done. That is the love of God. That’s why our liturgy includes the Confession and Forgiveness.

Knowing how much God has done for us and sacrificed for us, even God’s own son, how can we not take a stand and say, “No. This is wrong. God loves me too much to keep doing this.” And so we in turn become like the slaves sent to the vineyard—called to be prophetic voices against violence and injustice. We aren’t perfect—not even Paul. But when we know how much we are loved and treasured, we find the strength to act because of it. “We love because he first loved us.”

We have our mission. The wall has been built. The wine vat carved. The vines planted. We have been given a vineyard.

What will we grow with it?

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Sermon–September 18, 2011–Pentecost 14A

Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost A
Preached at First Evangelical Lutheran Church, Muskegon, MI, while on Internship.

Jonah 3:10-4:11
Psalm 145:1-8
Philippians 1:21-30
Matthew 20:1-16

If I were the one responsible for translating the Bible, I think the full title of Jonah’s story would be, “Jonah and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day.” Catchy, isn’t it? I mean, just read the book. When I think of bad days, Jonah comes to mind.

First, he hears a call from God to prophesy. Now God, in case you haven’t noticed, prophecy is one of those gifts that tend to get people killed. So already, we’re off to a rocky start.

Then, Jonah finds out that he is being called to prophesy to Nineveh. Nineveh?? God, you do know that Nineveh is the capital of Assyria, right? The same Assyria that likes to raid our kingdom and destroy our cities? You want me to actually go to the city itself and prophesy to them? Oh please, please tell me you want me to give them good news.

You don’t? “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” Great.

So, you want me to:
Take on a job that gets people killed,
Go to a city full of very bad people that like to kill
people like me,
And give them very bad news?

Heck no, I won’t go! And off he goes.

Being called to be a prophet is not an easy job. Many of the Old Testament prophets resisted their call at first. But none of them went to the extreme lengths that Jonah did. Jonah didn’t just resist, he fled the country. He picked the furthest point in the known world that a ship would take him to. Tarshish was a port town in modern Spain. It would be like if God told me to go to Maine and I went to Hawaii instead. Jonah thought that if he could just get away from God’s country, he could get away from God. He assumed that God, being the God of Israel, wouldn’t be able to follow him.

I’m sure most of you know the rest of the story, how a storm threatens to destroy the boat Jonah is on, how he gets thrown overboard and swallowed by the fish, how he gets vomited out onto the beach, and finally goes to Nineveh to give his 8 word prophecy. And that brings us to today’s reading.

Jonah’s prophesying is wildly successful. He is the single most successful prophet in the Old Testament. He preaches for one day, and uses only 8 words: “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” And Nineveh immediately and overwhelmingly repents. Not even Israel or Judah, God’s chosen people, were this receptive to the prophets. He has just convinced an entire wicked, evil city to turn away from their evil ways. This sounds like very good news and a job well done by Jonah.

But Jonah doesn’t see things that way. Jonah knows that Nineveh is a city full of wicked, evil people. He knows that for all they have done, they deserve to die.

He’s right. The people of Nineveh did deserve God’s wrath. It’s interesting to note that the word in Hebrew translated as “overthrown” is the same word used to describe what God did to Sodom and Gomorrah. So maybe a better translation of Jonah’s prophesy would be, “Forty days more, and Nineveh will be utterly, catastrophically destroyed by the wrath of God.”

But Jonah knows God. Jonah knows that God is a merciful God as well as a God of justice and judgement. The book of Jonah is not the only time Jonah appears in the Bible. He is mentioned as a prophet deep in the 2nd book of Kings, Jonah, son of Amittai, from Gath-hepher. There he prophesies that, despite the fact that Israel has not been a righteous or just nation, God will expand its territory. God shows mercy to Israel, even though they don’t deserve it.

So in this tale, Jonah of course knows God’s mercy—when it comes to Israel, that’s what he’s come to expect from God. But he doesn’t want Nineveh to know that. Jonah is so self-centered, he would rather see the whole city burn. They are not deserving of mercy.

I find it hard to pass too harsh a judgment on Jonah. I like to think that I’m a pretty decent person. I don’t steal. I don’t murder. I don’t commit adultery. Okay, I may covet my neighbor’s awesome big screen TV, and Pastor Bill has a sweet bike, but overall, I think I do pretty well. My parents worked hard to provide for my sister and me, helped me get a job, tried to teach me responsibility. I’ve paid my dues, and I deserve to be treated accordingly.

Certainly, I deserve to be treated with more respect than that welfare family with six kids and a mom who’s never worked an honest day in her life. And that drug addict who’s wasted all his money on his filthy habit and has the nerve to beg for my money doesn’t deserve an ounce of respect until he gets clean. I’ll help the poor, but only if they help themselves too.

Where would we be, if God worked the same way we did.

What’s ironic about Jonah’s anger is that he can’t see that he is just as guilty as the Ninevites. He hears God’s call and does everything an Israelite, a prophet of God should not do, yet he clings to the delusion that he is a righteous man before God. The immediate repentance of the Ninevites puts Jonah’s ridiculous tantrums into even starker contrast. Jonah is so blinded by his sense of self-righteousness, he can’t see that he and his people would not be where they were if it were not for God’s mercy—the same mercy that God shows to Nineveh.

We, like Jonah, like to think that as followers of Christ, as baptized children of God, we are owed more because of our devotion. Like the early workers of Jesus’ parable, we feel that if God can be merciful to the “others”, we should get a little extra. By all means, God, give good things to the “others”, but let’s be realistic, we have been good, and we should get a bonus. We are so pre-occupied with our own righteous, we can’t stand to see someone who doesn’t have the devotion and dedication we do get the same reward. It goes against everything society teaches us to think.

We are lucky, that God doesn’t think the same way we do.

We are lucky, because if God rewarded us based on our merits NONE of us would be getting paid, let alone getting a bonus. We are lucky because God is generous and loving to us, who are just as miserable and misguided as Jonah, the Israelites, Judeans,  Muslims, thieves, extortionists, ponzi and pyramid schemers, extremists, gang members, murderers, rapists, terrorists. We are lucky because God cares so much for creation, for all of God’s children, that heaven rejoices when even people like us cry out to God with the words, “We are so… very… sorry.”

Jonah was wrong when he thought that by fleeing from God’s country, he could flee God. God is not confined to a country, a region, or a people. Those distinctions are ours, and they are wrong.

When we shun another because we are their better, when we hate another because they don’t believe the same way we do, when we would rather kill another because we are convinced that there is no other way, we are no better than Jonah, who is angry enough at God’s mercy that he would rather die than see God’s mercy poured out on those who he hates. We are no better than Jonah, who was so self-righteous, he couldn’t imagine that he was just as guilty and worthless as Nineveh.

We are all God’s children, God’s creation. Jonah was concerned for the bush he did not plant or cause to grow, and we are concerned for the works of our hands and everything we invest our money and time into. And should not God be concerned with all of creation, and every single person in it, who has been individually and lovingly shaped by God’s hands and invested with the breath of life?

Thanks be to God for that concern for all of us creatures, who do not even know our right hands from our lefts.

Community of Faith

Last night, a meeting was held for the parents of children who will be participating in Confirmation classes this year. At the meeting, Pastor stressed that Confirmation was not just an activity on the checklist with other activities children participate in, like soccer, swimming, music lessons, cheer-leading, etc. Confirmation, he said, focuses on building and connecting the community of faith.

What does it mean to be the community of faith? For many, the church is just another activity on the list. It is a once-a-week recurring event on their Google Calendars lasting 1 hour (and is allowed no more than an extra 15 minutes). It is an activity and a membership club with dues that are entirely too high. Thank goodness they are optional!

For some, the church is a non-profit charitable organization that, like all sensible and rational organizations, must first and foremost draw up a balanced budget, addressing internal fiscal needs like administration costs and bills, before it can decide how much it can spend on mission.

When did church become so… ordinary? I wish I could say that back in the good-old-days (disgruntled church member speech for the 1950s) the church was nothing like what it has become today for so many. But the truth is, even then, the church was relegated to just another activity, just another organization.

What Pastor was trying to illustrate last night was that the church should be different. The church needs to be different. Our American culture is extremely individualistic and independent. It shuns community in favor of the individual. The many ways we have of keeping in touch and networking (Facebook, Twitter, iPhone, Blackberry), ironically, have separated us more and more from each other. Even gated housing communities are full of people who wish not to be involved with everyone else, inside and outside the compound. In this environment, community struggles to survive.

What will it take, then, for the church to be the community of faith? The second lesson for this weekend, from Paul’s letter to the Romans (Rom 14:1-12), has an idea–focus on what is important. When the church divides itself over the most inconsequential of details, it ceases to be the community of faith. This applies to local congregations as well as national and international church bodies. That I can identify myself as a Lutheran speaks to the divisions in the community of faith.

It does not matter if communion includes wine or grape juice, leavened or unleavened bread (or wafers). It does not matter if Christ is philosophically present, truly present, or symbolically present (or, dare I say, present at all). The community of faith gathers anyway to sincerely attempt to carry out God’s work in the world. The community of faith offers mutual support in an environment of mutual interdependence. Here, faith is nurtured. Here, all people are welcomed, comforted, challenged, sustained, called out, and nurtured.