The Pharisees’ Dwight Freeney Complex

Jesus is just in no mood to be trifled with in this Gospel.

He is a busy man and he does not have time to fool with a bunch of sneaky Pharisees who have a bad attitude.

You can just feel his frustration when he says, “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites?”

The Pharisees are a bunch of grown men, and more than that, they are religious professionals who presumably have duties to which they are supposed to be attending.

And yet they find time in their busy schedule to waylay Jesus in the street, an upstart rabble rouser who they’re really not supposed to be acknowledging, and try to trip him up verbally into either alienating his supporters or being arrested by the Romans.

It would be like if Dwight Freeney, all-star defensive end formerly of the Indianapolis Colts, saw a high school freshman quarterback at the mall and tried to sack him.

It’s overkill, it’s inappropriate and it’s just tacky. Continue reading

The Dog Ate God’s Homework

“The dog ate my homework.”

This familiar phrase is one of the most classic examples of avoiding responsibility for a stupid action. But it points to a very human trait that gets the better of all of us at one point or another.

There are various ways of describing it. There is a phrase that originated in Chinese culture that we now take for granted in English: saving face.

There are actions that are taken in order to save face, sometimes called cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face or shooting oneself in the foot.

The basic idea is that we, as human beings, will do almost anything to avoid admitting that we were wrong.

One of the greatest examples of this happening in my own family is a story my father tells of being taken along on a vacation with his aunt, uncle and cousins. They all grew up in Atlanta, and the big trip to Florida was planned amid much excitement.

It’s a fairly straight shoot from Atlanta to Florida, pretty much due East.

Uncle Frank would not admit he was going the wrong way until they crossed the Alabama border. Continue reading

Leaving Middle Management: Choosing Downward Mobility

Jesus’ parables have layer upon layer of meaning within them, and today’s story about the vineyard owner has quite the cast of characters.

Let’s search for where we are in this parable, and where we’d like to be.

So the basic plot elements are as follows:  the vineyard owner plants a vineyard and works quite hard at making it state of the art.  There is a fence, a winepress, and a watchtower.

Then he entrusts it to this group of tenants and leaves the country.

These tenants appear to have been a very bad investment, however.  They are angry, violent, greedy people.

Each time the landowner sends his slaves to bring in the harvest, they are beaten and killed by the tenants.

Not even the vineyard owner’s son escapes the same fate.

Jesus ends the story asking what will happen to the wicked tenants when the vineyard owner confronts them, and the chief priests and Pharisees predict a sticky end for them.

As we begin to mine the text for meaning and guidance, we are of course to begin by placing ourselves in the role of the tenants.

It’s not a very flattering picture of ourselves, but let’s explore it.

Of course we do not go around beating and murdering people.

But do we always welcome with open arms the people and situations God sends into our lives? Continue reading

The Adventure of the Undergrad Weekend Monastics

Changing our minds.  That’s not something we look on favorably.

In politics, if someone changes his or her mind on an issue, that person is labeled with the unflattering term “flip-flopper.”

We equate changing our minds with being indecisive, weak, unable to plant ourselves on firm ground and stand up for what’s right.

I think all the bluster around changing our minds is probably covering up a deeper simple fear of change.

The chief priests and elders are certainly stuck there in our gospel story this morning.

They feel like they have to defend the integrity of their tradition and hierarchy against Jesus, a stranger who is coming in and offering the word of God  and healing people without permission from anyone.

They can’t change their minds in front of the crowd.

They can’t look weak and indecisive by admitting they were wrong about John the Baptist.

But they do end up looking weak as they fall neatly into their own trap that they had set for Jesus.

Jesus is recommending that we change our minds, and he tells us a parable about it.  We have the one son who says he’ll help but doesn’t, and the son who says he won’t help in the vineyard but changes his mind and goes and does it.

Everyone immediately understands which son did the will of his father.

“Jesus said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.’”

“You did not change your minds,” Jesus says.

You saw something great, but you did not allow it to act upon you and change your mind. Continue reading

There Is No Such Thing as iChurch

“I can’t get no satisfaction,” to quote Mick Jagger.

That is exactly what our scriptures are about today.

We have a passage from the Book of Exodus where the Israelites are so unhappy and ungrateful that they actually wish out loud that God had allowed them to die as slaves in Israel.

And we have the story from the Gospel of Matthew where the laborers who worked all day are angry that the workers who only showed up at 5 p.m. get paid the same amount as themselves, who have worked all day in the hot sun.

To be fair and honest, they all have a case.

The Israelites are lost in the desert, and have no reason to expect that food and water will magically appear to save them.  And it really doesn’t seem fair that nobody is rewarded according to how much he or she worked in the parable in Matthew.

Despite these instinctive misgivings, we like to believe we would somehow be far-seeing and obedient to God if we were in the same situation.

We’d like to believe that if we were with the Israelites, we would be brave and have faith that God would take care of us.

And we’re sure that if we were with the disciples hearing Jesus’ parable, we’d immediately understand that God’s grace is given freely to everyone regardless of how much effort they are able to put in.

Well, I’m calling bogus, and I’d actually like to propose that we are even less likely either have faith in or be satisfied with God’s grace than the people in these two stories. Continue reading

Changed by a Promise I Cannot Keep

Today Jesus invites us from the economy of the world into his economy of grace.

The word “economy” comes from a Greek root meaning “household” and the management of a household.  And Peter, in our gospel story today, is asking Jesus about the management of our Christian household.

“Peter came and said to Jesus, ‘Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?’ Jesus said to him, ‘Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.’”

Of course, Jesus does not mean that we should forgive each other literally seventy-seven times and then stop.

He means that we should quit keeping count all together. Continue reading

Beyond the Wilderness, The Burning Voice of God

The story of Moses and the burning bush has me riveted just as it always has.

It’s a rich image throughout art and movies, and we think of the great quotes of the story, such as God’s commandment to remove our shoes because we are on holy ground, and God naming Godself as the Great I AM.

But when we go back and read the story carefully, there’s always some little detail that we hadn’t seen before that opens up new insight into the story and its meanings.  That’s part of the richness of scripture.

The part that caught me this time around was the very first sentence: “Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian; he led his flock beyond the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God.”

“He led his flock beyond the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God.”

That is one of the finest pieces of foreshadowing I have ever read.

Because it’s not just some literary device put in by a clever author.

God is helping Moses complete his mission before he’s even begun it.

Let me explain. Continue reading

The Case Against Christian Unity

I really only have one simple thing that I want to say today. It’s an idea that’s been growing in me for some time now, and our text from Romans really spoke to me about it.

I’d like to present to you the case against Christian unity.

“Against Christian unity?” you might say. “But that’s one of the most basic Christian doctrines! Jesus prayed for us all to be one as he and the Father are one!”

That’s absolutely true. But Jesus didn’t specify how he wanted us to be one, and I think we may have gotten a wee bit off track there.

And I don’t so much want to get rid of the doctrine of Christian unity as to add to it. Continue reading

How We Fear God’s Love

God has been trying to get one message through to us for our entire lives, L-O-V-E in great big skywriting with the bass pumped up and the speakers on full blast, and we’re so off in our own worlds we never hear this glorious music made of God’s love that forms the very substance of every breath we breathe.

Joseph was in this very situation in our lesson from Genesis today.

He has been through a lot with his brothers.

They were his heroes when he was a little boy running around the sheepfolds.

Then he started to dream.

In his innocence he couldn’t understand why they became angry when he told them his visions of sheaves of grain and the sun, moon, and stars.

His childhood ended the day they left him to die in a pit in the desert and then sold him into slavery with the Ishmaelites.

He started to build a life for himself in Potiphar’s household but then it all came crashing down through no fault of his own and he found himself locked away in jail for two years.

This time he wasn’t the one dreaming. Continue reading

The Ghost on the Water

If you are awake at 3 a.m., there is probably something wrong.

You might be having fun if you’re partying that late, but you’re probably past your prime and have had a few too many drinks.

If you are awake at 3 a.m. and not a drunk college student, the most likely explanation is that you are up with a sick child, you are lying in bed worrying about losing, finding, or keeping a job, you are sitting by a hospital bed having been told your loved one is unlikely to survive the next twenty-four hours, or are facing some other catastrophe, large or small.

The disciples in our gospel story today are quite literally in the same boat.

The wind has been against them their entire journey, and they are being battered by the waves. The land is far away and their boat is small. Continue reading

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