A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY
by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor
Christmas Eve/B • December 24, 2017
Most of the last 45 years, I have stood before a church, as I do tonight, as a pastor, often in a preaching robe, to lead in prayer and listening to God’s Word. It’s so common that some new members in our church who came to see me one weekday when I was wearing regular clothes remarked on it: “We’re not used to seeing you like this.” I assured them that I was the same person. But my first appearance before a church took place long before the robe and stole, when I was selected to play the little angel in a Christmas Pageant called, The Littlest Angel. Perhaps you know this story and if you do, you know that this angel has two characteristics: he’s little and he’s not very well behaved. I qualified on both points.
When we read the Christmas story, it’s striking to see how much of it concerns little things. It takes place in Bethlehem, a place the prophet Micah described as “..one of the little clans of Judah”. It’s main characters are small as well. Joseph is a tool maker forced to make a journey at the worst time of all. Can you imagine how worried and harried he is, helping his pregnant wife to travel, trying to find space for them to stay? Then there is Mary herself, a teenager who enters the story as an unwed mother, a woman in a culture that is overwhelmingly patriarchal, young in a culture that favors age, about to give birth in a time and place where birthing is a very dangerous business.
Mary defines small in the story. So does her reaction to all this. Faced with an angelic visitor, she summons the courage to say,
“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
And she goes on to remember all the other small ones.
His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.
Listen: because this ought to scare us just a bit. It ought to make us ask, “Are we the proud ones? Are we the enthroned powerful?” Because Mary is speaking for God here and the message is—I love the little.
This is Christmas Eve: and it’s all about the smallest present of all, a baby, the birth of Jesus. Have you seen a newborn? Can you remember how small she was, how tiny and perfect his fingers were, how small and helpless the little person was? Think of Jesus that way: think of him as small and vulnerable. And then remember: so are we before God.
This is Christmas Eve: and it’s all about little things. I don’t remember anything about playing the Littlest Angel—my mother never tired of reminding me that I had embarrassed her by yawning widely in front of the whole church during the singing—but I know the story and I know how it ends: it ends when the littlest angel brings little things to the baby.
…a butterfly with golden wings, captured one bright summer day on the hills above Jerusalem, and a sky-blue egg from a bird’s nets in the olive tree that stood to shade his mother’s kitchen door. Yet, and two white stones found on a muddy river bank, where he and his friends had played like small, brown beavers, and at the bottom the box, a limp, tooth-marked leather strap, once worn as a collar by his mongrel dog, who had died as he had lived, in absolute love and infinite devotion.
And out of those, out of those little things, he summons this: the laughter of God. And in the story at least, it is the box of the littlest angel’s gifts that becomes the star over the stable where the Song of God is born, where the love of God begins again, as it does every day.
This is Christmas Eve: with the little things of Christmas, let us also summon the laughter of God who indeed, does great things, and gives the greatest of things: the gift of love.
I love weddings and I used to officiate at a lot of them. There’s all the fuss and planning and then on the day itself, little details that seem so important. I usually enter with the men and they’re always nervous. We stand at the front, face the back and the bridesmaids sweep up the aisle, more or less as I rehearsed them the night before. I remember one whispering as she walked past, “Was that ok?” Then the organ changes, often getting louder, people stand and a woman in a dress she will never wear again sweeps into the sanctuary, walks up the aisle. It’s regal, it’s that moment which fulfills every time someone called her, “princess”. So when I think about the opening of today’s scripture reading, “”When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him..”, that’s how I imagine it. I know that doesn’t match the text, I know it’s the church that gets called “the bride of Christ”, but still, I imagine that kind of regal entrance, light and music and everyone standing in awe. “Open the gates that the King of glory may come in”, a Psalm we read on Palm Sunday begins: today is Reign of Christ Sunday—open the doors, that the Lord of glory may come in.
Now the scene shifts: once the Lord takes the throne, it’s time for business and the most important business of any Lord is judgement. So Matthew imagines everyone—all the nations of the world—in one herd before him. What a crowd! We often say, “Everyone welcome”, around here but the truth is, we’re not prepared for everyone; we’re prepared for about 35 or 40 people. What would happen if everyone came? What would happen if one Sunday, we opened the doors and people flooded in, rushed in, so many that some sat even in the pews where no one ever sits and which therefore don’t have visitor cards or even hymnals?
All the nations, gathered. There are people who don’t get along, there are different races, nationalities, black, white, asian, Catholic, Protestant, Moslem, Hindu, Buddhist, None of the above, Republicans, Democrats,. The word ‘nation’ is Matthew’s usual term for Gentiles so for once, he means you and I. “All the nations” means everybody. He means Jews and Gentiles, Romans, Carthagenians, and as we’ll discover on Pentecost Sunday, the people from Cyrene, wherever that is. We’ll learn from Matthew later that he means the people at the ends of the earth, wherever that is; I think it’s near Buffalo. They’re all there, everyone, all the nations, standing up, watching the great processional of the king of glory. I like to imagine there’s an organist. I’ve never been to a big assembly like this without an organist, so I assume there is one. If you prefer piano music or a full orchestra, feel free to imagine that, the text isn’t clear.
All processionals come to an end eventually. The king reaches the throne, the followers file into the seats with the “RESERVED” sign taped to them and the last bit of the organ piece ring out and then fade and I imagine the liturgist, in the silence, saying, as i do every morning, “The peace of the Lord be with you” and then everyone sitting down. I know this is entirely culturally defined but it’s how I imagine it, my imagination only goes so far.
Now the king speaks, everyone strains to listen and this is what he says: move. Now, if I had been advising on this liturgy, the details of this gathering, I would have advised against this. It’s always difficult to ask people in a congregation to move. One of the first things someone said to me when I came here was that they were not moving where they sat. Look at us today. There’s no doubt we’d all be warmer, we’d all sound better, we’d all feel better if we sat near each other but we don’t. We’re scattered all over. We’re in our familiar seats. But that’s what the king says. He has them divide up into two groups, like a herdsman separating the sheep and goats in a herd. Sheep and goats are herded together during the day but at night they are separated and the same thing happens here. Sheep on the left, goats on the right. Which are you? Which am I?
Now he turns to the sheep and tells them they are going to enter into his kingdom for reasons they don’t understand. They fed him when he was hungry, they clothed him when he was naked, and so on. They don’t remember doing it. They don’t remember these acts of charity, they don’t remember their donations to the food pantry, they don’t remember being kind or doing these things. They did them but they were clueless at the time. They still are. Then he turns to the goats and the mirror image thing happens. They don’t get into the kingdom because they didn’t do these things. But they don’t remember not doing them. They don’t remember seeing him and refusing him food or clothing or the rest. They were clueless at the time. They still are. When it comes to what they knew at the time, the sheep and the goats here are just the same. The difference isn’t what they knew, it’s what they did. It’s how they responded in moments when they didn’t know what they were doing. The stunning fact about this judgement is that no one understood beforehand what would make a difference.
There is an old song with the refrain, “Where are you going, my little one? Where are you going my little one? Turn around and you’re two, turn around and you’re four”. It expresses that wondrous, sad, joyful truth that the paths of our lives wind in unpredictable ways. One day in 1964, my mother took me to a new church, Pine Hill Congregational. I met Nora Clark, a Sunday School teacher, the wife of the minister, Harry Clark. No one knew these two people would shape my life profoundly or that 53 years later, we would still be sharing our lives. Nora became for me a conscience. Whenever I’m not being the best me, I hear her voice in my head saying, “Now Jim…”
What is true of individual lives is true as well of our life together. Today is the last day of the church’s liturgical year, the calendar of worship. It’s called, “Reign of Christ” Sunday and it ask: where are you going? What do you hope to accomplish? What is your goal? And the truth is, we don’t know where we are going, we only know that along the way are these occasions when we can say “Yes, Lord” or “No, Lord”. We don’t know what we are doing; we don’t know how it will turn out. But we know what Jesus has said: feed the hungry, heal the sick, bind up wounds. Love your neighbor; love God. The challenge of Christian life is these little moments, day by day, when we can say yes, Lord, yes Lord, by doing what he says.
Almost fifty years ago, I was an awkward sixteen year old at church camp, a shy kid with a little gift for lifting up poetry and drama in a way that brought my friends together in worship. I lived in books; I read plays. My heroes were writers and playwrights and I thought it would be an amazing, incredible thing to move to New York and be a writer. At the same time, I was beginning to be part of the movement for peace that focused first on the Vietnam War and racial injustice. I thought we could save the world and i wanted to be part of it. In that moment, lying on a dock in Northern Michigan where you can see stars hidden in the city, where the universe seems close, I heard in my heart the call of God to become not a writer or an activist but a minister. It wasn’t a suggestion: it wasn’t a command. It was a confidence that this was what would shape and define my life. It has ever since.
Perhaps because it’s so long ago, perhaps because this is almost certainly the last church where I will ever bear the title of pastor, I’ve been thinking a lot recently about what I’ve done, what I’ve tried to do, successes and failures, what I want to do still. This image, this parable, is it: this is where we are going, this is our goal. If the reign of Christ is our hope, this is what it looks like, and it turns out that it isn’t about what we believed, it’s about what we did. Our theology doesn’t matter as much as our practical ministry. We don’t know what difference giving a coat to someone or inviting them to come worship where they will be accepts and welcomed will make. But the surprise of this parable is that it does make a difference. Sometimes a lot is made about the ultimate fates of the sheep and goats in this story: some going to paradise, some to hell. But I think what’s really at the heart here is the surprise of how much difference what they did when they didn’t know what they were doing made. “When did we…Lord?” They ask over and over: both sorts ask. “If you did it to one of the least of these… you did it for me.”
Reign of Christ is often celebrated with pageants and processionals. But the real processional is when Christ comes into us and we say, “Yes Lord”. “Open the gates that the king of glory may come in”—they open when we look and see the face of Christ in others. They open when we hear him say, “You give them something to eat,” and do it. They open when we hear him say, “Love one another,” and we do it. They open when do what he says.
In a few minutes, we’re going to sing “Lord, I want to be more Christian in my heart. I like the song, I like the feeling but the truth is that Christian life is about behavior as well as heart. Once when Jesus was confronted by opponents about people around him not washing their hands before eating, he said, “…it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.” [Matthew 15:11]; this is what he had in mind. The real announcement of our commitment to Christ is behavior and behavior is a matter of choices.
Today we are surrounded by more choices than ever before. A server at a restaurant doesn’t just give you a glass of water; they ask, “Do you want lemon?” We used to go to a travel agent to get an airline ticket; now we go online and choose from long list of options. Choices we make along the way turn out to have enormous impact and the story we read today is right on target if we want to learn to choose to be more Christian not only in our heart but in our daily lives.
The setting is dramatic. After a generation of wandering the wilderness and having taken the first steps into the promised land, after the death of Moses, the man who led them out of Egypt, his successor has taken up leadership of the tribes. Now Joshua gathers the tribes on a mountain side at a place called Shechem in northern Israel. Some are old and laughing quietly to themselves about this new, young leader. “Well, he’s nice enough, but he’s no Moses,” I imagine them saying. Others opposed him, perhaps, and come with faces set in stony smiles that betray their discomfort, already thinking of procedural irregularities, and bringing along their Roberts Rules of Order manuals, just in case they need them for reference. Still others are supporters of Joshua; inspired by his leadership, they believe that finally all the troubles of the past will be over, that he will be the one who finally Gets It Done. They are not sure what “It” is; but they believe they will see it. Some complain he doesn’t have much experience; some advocate for change. All of them gather now, a crowd of faces, a sea of hopes and fears. What new program will he propose? What new law will he make? What new policy will he announce?
But Joshua begins not with what is new but with what is ancient.
Long ago your ancestors… served other Gods… I took your father Abraham from beyond the River and led him and made his offspring many. I gave him Isaac… [Joshua 24:3]
What follows is a long history lesson, the same history lesson we’ve been walking through this fall, the history of how God took a few individuals, a family, and made them a people who could be a channel of blessing to the world. Joshua reminds them where they came from and how far they’ve come; he brings up the miracle at the sea, when God saved them from annihilation when they had given up. He lists the many ways God has been a helpful presence along their way.
finally, he summons them to a choice
Now therefore revere the Lord, and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness; put away the gods that your ancestors served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the Lord. Now if you are unwilling to serve the Lord, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served in the region beyond the River or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living; but as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord. [Joshua 24:14f]
“Choose today, choose whom you will serve,” Joshua says. It’s a direct, no weasel room choice. In fact, the people are so moved they respond immediately with an enthusiastic yes, as people do to a good sermon. Joshua is wise enough to know this choice will take more than a moment of energy and he points out to them that choosing God will mean making choices about their behavior. He doesn’t invite them to feelings; he doesn’t ask them to come forward for prayer, he tells them to do something: “Then put away the foreign gods that are among you, and incline your hearts to the Lord, the God of Israel.” [Joshua 24:23] What are those foreign Gods? They are the ground of their security, they are the things that make them feel good and safe. They are visible idols, charms against life’s challenges and dangers. It is a scary thing to put away these gods and choose one God who is not visible, who is too large to be held in your hand, who is too powerful to be told what to do.
This his challenge is for us as well. For this is the scene in every age, this is God’s appeal in every time: choose me! We were created in a unique way, for a unique purpose, to give God company, to praise God’s work as God’s people. To do that requires a likeness of God and God’s fundamental characteristic is freedom. So the all-powerful, world creating God did this: like a parent letting a child go on a date about which they have misgivings, God said: “Ok, now you choose, please choose well.”
This is what God does in every time, with each of us. We imagine God in many ways; we should imagine God in this way. I know this experience, and perhaps you do as well. It is the experience of your first dance, hoping someone will choose you. It is the experience of a student with the right answer, hoping to get the teacher’s attention.
One of the images the Bible uses for our relationship with God is marriage. Always in this image, God’s people, you and I, are the bride; God is the husband. So when I think about this, I remember what it was like to ask Jacquelyn to marry me. We knew we were in love; we knew we wanted to be married. She picked out a ring with a blue stone and I bought it. So it might seem as if this was a sure thing. I got the ring secretly and took it with me when we went on a trip to Paris. I’d asked a more knowledgeable friend about churches with blue stained glass and he said the place to go was Sainte Chapelle, the Saints Chapel, a cathedral built in the 1100’s with huge vaulting blue windows. So I suggested this as a first stop and off we went. All that morning, I remember being nervous and keyed up and when we got in the cathedral itself, I couldn’t stop talking; I do that when I’m nervous. There was a sign that said, “Quiet Please”; Jacquelyn pointed it out, clearly embarrassed by my behavior. I just said I was ordained and entitled to talk in a church. There was a row of chairs around the sides and she walked over and sat down so I sat next to her; she turned away, hoping to shut me up. And the moment was there, I slipped off the chair, onto my knee, and said words I had practiced, asking her to choose me. This is how God comes to us: not overwhelming but asking. This is why Jesus is born in a stable, not a palace; this is why God’s appeal is from a cross, not a throne. God asks simply this: choose me.
Our choices make a difference. Every Sunday, we choose whether to get up and come here. Your presence has an impact beyond what you may know. We never know just who will walk through the door, who will sit down next to you; we do know that God seems to invite us to places where we will be able to become blessings if we choose to go. A Congregational Church is in some ways more sensitive to the choices of its members than other ways of organizing. Friends of mine from other traditions are amazed when I explain that in a Congregational Church, all major choices are in the hands of the members. “What if they make the wrong choices?”, one asked me recently. I said, “Yes—but what’s amazing is how often they make the right choices!”
We choose whether to invite others to come with us. Years ago, someone did a study and discovered that 80% of the people who visited a church did so because someone invited them. Think about it: what if we all began to regularly invite someone to church? Someone will say, well, I don’t get that chance but frankly we all have it. I remember inviting someone in a wine store one day; how unlikely was that? Yet there he was a few days later, in worship. Churches like ours benefited from a long time by a cultural push that filled pews. That’s over and our future depends on the choices we make.
The first way we express this choice is by insisting on the power of God as our ground of hope. We are not here for an earthly purpose; we are not going to an earthly destination. We are not on this journey for an earthly reason; we cannot make it based on earthly resources alone. So when we face difficulties, when we feel doubts, we should not be downcast, we should choose to hope in God. When we have come to the end of ourselves, we should not stop because we are not the end. One thing is certain: there is no end, there is no defeat, there is no stopping the purpose of God. If we have chosen to be a part of that purpose, God will provide the means to accomplish it.
For we are the means. God has already chosen us and our mission should unfold from those choices. Here’s a picture of what this looks like. In another church one day, one of the OutreachTeams came up with an idea: stand outside a local grocery store and ask for donations for the food pantry. She didn’t ask for a budget or a meeting or anything—she just shared the idea and then went out and did it. The next Saturday there they were, three people from my church, asking for help to feed people, and I couldn’t help think of Jesus’ words to the disciples when he was confronted by hungry people: “You give them something to eat.” There they were, doing just what he said.
“Choose me!”—God making an appeal. The choices we make are our response. What mission will you choose? What will you do? The song with which I began, says Lord I want to be more Christian in my heart… also has a verse that says, “Lord I want to be more holy”. To be holy is a to choose God, to choose God in the morning, to choose God at lunch, to choose God in the evening. For in all the places we visit, in all the situations where we live, there is God also, moment to moment, simply saying, “Choose me”.
Hasn’t it been an amazing week? Like the view riding a carousel, things flashed by, sometimes so fast it was hard to see them. There was Halloween and its parade of children in costumes. There was the process of pursuing criminals from last year’s Presidential election. And of course in the middle of the week, the terrible terrorists attack close to home in New York City. Now we’re here, in this quiet place, and it’s time for the carousel to stop and let us catch our breath, consider the way forward. For a few weeks I’ve been lifting up the theme of stewardship, by which I mean the conscious decision to treat everything we have as a gift from God. Today’s scripture reading from the first letter of John is a wonderful summary of this theme.
“See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are,” it begins. Stop and listen carefully to this sentence. Breathe it in; let it resonate within you. John begins with the reminder we all need every single day: the love of God is the bedrock reality of creation. “See what love the Father has given us…” Last week I talked about the time when the church set a price on a ticket to heaven. That kind of pay for play religion has always gone on; we hear it echoed in an oracle by the prophet Micah
‘With what shall I come before the Lord and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt-offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with tens of thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?’
This is the heartfelt cry of a person who wants to know what it will cost to come to God. Ticket to heaven religion still goes on; it’s the base of the prosperity preaching, it’s the temptation of every church. To this heresy, to this great falsehood, John says: “See with love the Father has given us…” No payment, no ticket, just gift: God is all gift.
He goes on to say, “Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed.” What does it look like? Perhaps we’ll understand if we turn to one of my favorite children’s stories: the story of Eeyore’s birthday.
Eeyore is one of the characters in the Winnie the Pooh stories, a dolorous, grey donkey, given to deep sighs and pessimistic views. Pooh encounters him on his birthday and he is feeling sorry for himself, so Pooh decides to make a birthday party. He goes home and finds Piglet; together they ponder presents. Then Pooh has an idea: he has a jar of honey. Now to a bear like Pooh, there is no gift as wonderful as a jar of honey. So he climbs up on the counter and gets the jar and sets off for Eeyore’s house. Meanwhile, Piglet has a hard time deciding; finally he remembers a big red balloon he received on his birthday, and happily he gets that. Because he’s taken so long deciding, he’s late and he runs and runs and as often happens when we run, he trips and falls and there is a tremendous POW! Piglet wonders what happened and then realizes the balloon is no longer there; instead there are just bits of red stuff. He picks those up, not nearly as happy now and sets out again.
Meanwhile, Pooh is also on his way to Eeyore’s when he gets tired and hungry. So he sits down and has a little of the honey. And then he has a little more and…well you can tell where this is going. Soon the jar is empty. Pooh contemplates the jar and then has this idea: it is now a Useful Jar for Putting Things In. So he washes it out, and sets off again.
Piglet and Pooh arrive at Eeyore’s and give him the Useful Jar for Putting Things In and the bits of red balloon. And then, while they argue a bit about the presents they suddenly realize that Eeyore is overjoyed: over and over again, he’s putting the red bits in the jar, taking them out, putting them in. The kindness of the friends somehow has taken these doubtful presents and turned them into treasure.
“See what love the Father has given us…” We all receive the gift of those who went before us in this church. This wonderful space, like a greenhouse, has grown many into spiritual flowering and it continues to nurture not only we who are its members but so many groups, from the Soul Rebel Theatre to the Recovery group. We benefit from their contributions in a direct way as well; our invested funds are a key part of what makes it possible to pay for our life as a church. The other key part is the gifts we give, both financial and in service.
Just like Pooh and Eeyore and Piglet, we are meant to go to a party. What gift will you bring? Every party needs gifts. Think of the communion party we are about to share. Someone had to get the juice, the bread, prepare them, set them out. Someone will bring you the elements; you will pass them to someone else. What makes the party is the shared spirit, the shared gifts. For when we give gifts of love, it is the image of God shining in us.
Maybe you brought a balloon that’s broken; maybe you brought an empty jar. Maybe you brought something none of us has ever seen. Whatever gift you share, we share, when we share, we share our lives as children of God. And isn’t that the ultimate treasure?—to know indeed that in our giving, every moment, is a gift from the God who loves us. “See what love the Father has given us..” See indeed and reflect that love, reflect the gift giving, as we share the ultimate treasure of the love of God, binding us together.
What does it cost to get in? I guess we’ve all asked that somewhere, sometime. How much are the tickets? There’s some connection between cost and value we calculate. When one of the Planet of the Apes movies was $12 a few months ago, it wasn’t worth it to me; when it was $5 at the Madison Theater, it was. Jacquelyn and I spend lots of time about a 20 minute walk from one of the best aquariums in the country. We’ve never been; it’s $30 and neither of us wants to spend that much to look at fish that you can’t eat. There are less tangible tickets too. What does it cost to have a happy marriage? I talk about that with couples sometimes; I explain it’s not a 50-50 situation, it’s 100%/100%. What does it cost to develop a church? Change: and not the sort in the bottom of your purse. What does it cost to live with God? What’s the ticket to heaven and where do you buy it? People have asked that question for centuries and 500 years this month it remember the answer and it seemed new.
Right from the beginning, Jesus’ followers tried to set up boundaries. When a crowd gathers to hear Jesus, the disciples advise Jesus to leave them; he tells the disciples to feed them. Someone does healings in his name, the disciples object; Jesus tells them to accept that person. The earliest Christian churches were consumed by the question of what to do about Gentile members: should they be circumcised? should they be required to keep kosher? Throughout the letters of Paul, we find these boundary questions, questions designed to create walls and different levels of Christians. To all of these, the apostle Paul says, nothing counts except faith in Jesus, nothing matters except loving Jesus, nothing matters except following Jesus.
We hear it in the part of Paul’s Romans we read today. Some Christians have been boasting about their spiritual credentials. Paul’s response is absolute.
For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith.
No distinction: no difference, all equal before God, in the love of God. Jesus Christ lived and died for all. And finally, the thing that makes this effective in us is our faith. In fact, as Paul goes on to say, we are justified with God, restored to God, through our faith.
Of course, Paul’s word wasn’t enough. The part of us that wants distinction, wants walls, kept building. Over the next centuries, Christians built a series of intricate walls that made many distinctions. They believed in power instead of grace and made the church into a bank. It’s a great advantage to say to people, “Your eternal salvation depends on what you give, what you do.” And that’s what they did. By the 1400’s, the church was actually selling indulgences, a sort of ticket to heaven.
That’s when a passionate monk named Martin Luther objected. Five hundred years ago this month, Luther publicly preached against the walls the church had erected and reminded them that salvation was by grace and justification by faith.
Over the next century, others joined him, including some like John Calvin, a French Protestant, who designed a new kind of church with the Bible at its center. English Protestants took this lesson back to England and refined it. They imagined a church as a covenanted group of equal Christians. They were our fathers and mothers in the faith and eventually this way of doing church would be called Congregationalism.
Still, the impulse to build walls continued. Congregationalists, who had been on the outside of the walls at their start, built them as well, trying to keep out Quakers and Baptists and others.
But the power of Jesus was irresistible and gradually many of those walls have come down. One of the great joys of my life and perhaps yours has been watching this process. I entered seminary in 1972, when women were still discouraged from training to be pastors; by the time I left, half the seminarians were women and today it’s unusual to have a clergy meeting without several women pastors present. I came into the ministry when gay marriage was almost unthinkable; today we rejoice when any couple invite us as a church to participate in witnessing a loving covenant.
This is our job, this is our role: to tear down the walls. Not every Christian communion has come as far in understanding there is no distinction in the love of God, so it is vital that we are here. We have a purpose, we have a plan: to be one place where no matter who you are, what you are, who you love, what you believe, you are welcome to come into the embrace of a corrugation inspired by the embrace of God. We want everyone to discover they are God’s treasure. Often when someone finds us, they are amazed at the openness of the welcome.
There is a reason the pews of so many churches are empty. It is because we were so busy building walls, we forgot to build up people. The true treasure of the open welcome of Jesus Christ is made concrete in the welcome you offer every day.
Today is Reformation day. In many pulpits, there will be a sermon about the past, one far more detailed and descriptive than the little sketch I offered. I kept the history short because I believe the real Reformation is in the future. I honor Luther’s work tearing down the walls; I honor the Pilgrims tearing down the walls. But I am inspired even more by the great future we have in making the promise of the Reformation come true.
The truth is, God loves us all. When we act like that and believe it, the walls come down and we are free. For just as Jesus said, the truth does set us free.
So today, this Reformation Day, is a moment not just to look back at the mighty fortress of Luther and Calvin and the heroes and heroines of Congregational history but forward. What walls remain? What are we doing that prevents people from fully experiencing God’s welcome here? How can we tear down those walls? What changes challenge us as we take our place in the dance of Reformation?
Robert Frost has a wonderful poem that imagines two neighbors rebuilding a stone wall. It begins,
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall, That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it And spills the upper boulders in the sun, And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.
[Robert Frost, Mending Wall]
They are rebuilding the wall because, as the neighbor remarks, “good fences make good neighbors”. Today, all over the world, Protestant congregations will mark the 500th Anniversary of the Protestant Reformation by singing a hymn to walls, A Mighty Fortress Is Our God, Martin Luther’s song of triumph, perhaps written while he himself hid behind the walls of a German castle.
So with all this talk of walls, it’s an important moment to say: the work of Jesus Christ is to tear down walls and open gates and invite all of us to fulfill our original purpose: living together as God’s children, praising God’s creative love.
Then he said to them, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” – Matthew 22:21b
A couple is breaking up a household, going their separate ways. He hands her a book: “I gave you this,” he says, and they gently argue about who owns books and other things. It’s a scene from the movie Annie Hall but one enacted over and over again. Things get mingled, jumbled. What’s yours? What’s mine?
Sometimes the question is easy; often it’s hard. I remember when I was divorced from my first wife and we were separating. I remember fighting over who owned the silver ware, who owned the knives, so many little things. What’s mine? What’s yours? It was hard to say so we fought and made silly rules: you take half the silverware, I’ll take the other half.
Ever since human beings settled down in places, they’ve had to ask this question. Ancient records record with meticulous detail land transactions, including one by the prophet Jeremiah in Jerusalem. The records also show us human greed at work; Proverbs s22:28 says, “Do not move an ancient boundary stone set up by your ancestors.” Some unscrupulous people were moving the boundaries of what they owned. King Ahab and later King David both get in trouble when power leads them to overreach and claim for themselves what isn’t theirs. I’m sure everyone here could tell a story about it. What’s yours? What’s mine? — and then finally: what is God’s?
That’s the issue Jesus raises in the story we read today. Some enemies are hoping to trap him, the way politicians do to each other.
What’s gone on in their country in the last few years has caused division and hatred and even violence. A few years before, the Romans had taken over Judea and installed Herod as King. He was widely hated and depended on Roman support just to stay alive, let alone in power. Partly to pay the cost of this, the Romans introduced a head tax, called a census. But this census wasn’t like the counting we do, it was a tax on every person. In fact, in just a few weeks, when we read the story of Jesus’ birth, we’ll hear about this tax again because it was precisely to be counted for the tax that Joseph and Mary go to Bethlehem.
The tax had to be paid in a Roman coin called a denarius, worth about a day’s pay and with an image of the emperor on one side and an inscription saying he was divine on the other. Now for a people whose deepest heartfelt religious expression was the Shema Yisrael, the prayer that says, “The Lord our God, the Lord is one,” and who believed there were no other Gods and who further had been explicitly told not to make images—well, it was unthinkable to have such a coin. So there was division: the Zealots who refused to pay, the establishment who wanted to overlook religious issues and pay up, the Pharisees in between.
Now they set a trap for Jesus by asking a question with no obvious easy answer. “Tell us, is it lawful to pay this tax?” If he says, “No!”—he will be arrested branded an outlaw, though a popular one; no one likes taxes and this tax was particularly hated. It’s the answer his followers want to hear and the answer the crowd hopes to hear. If on the other hand he says, “Yes, pay the tax,” he will be seen as a coward who compromises with power, afraid of the Romans, and he will lose the faith of his followers.
Now there is quiet as the question hangs in the air, a moment while he thinks, and then, his answer, which obviously surprises them: “Show me the coin”. He’s caught them at their own game—because they produce the coin, showing they have already violated Torah, just by having such an image.
Now he takes the coin, looks at it, perhaps turns it over and looks up, asking, “Whose image is on the coin?”—everyone knows the answer: Caesar. And finally: his answer: “Them give Caesar what is Caesar’s—and render to God, what is God’s.”
What is God’s? What belongs to God? Early in the history of the church, a great theologian recognized that since we bear the image of God, Jesus means each one of us. The coin bear’s Caesar’s image—give it to Caesar. We bear God’s image—so we belong to God. “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it,” Psalm 24:1 says. So the question of what is yours has a surprising answer: what is yours is yours isn’t yours, it’s God’s, because you yourself are God’s living treasure. What is God’s?—we are, every single one of us.
What is yours? What is God’s? If we take this seriously, it becomes the gateway to living as stewards. Now stewardship has come to mean giving money to the church. But it really means a much deeper, wider embrace of a way of life. What is God’s? This moment, and all the moments to come. So if we are on God’s time, shouldn’t we act like it by living as God’s people? What is God’s: this earth and its marvelously complex web of life. So shouldn’t we live in a way that honors that life? What is God’s? All of creation—so if we are stewards, we are stewards of creation. Everything we are, everything we own, everything we do is meant to be a part of this stewardship.
We are God’s and one of the ways we express this is by though sharing the work of God’s church. All the ministries of this church are enabled by our giving. Let me say that again: all the ministries of this church are enabled by our giving. Nothing happens here, nothing can happen here, unless someone gives something. I think we forget that principle sometimes. We take things for granted, as if they were always here, will always be here. That pew you’re sitting in; this pulpit from which I’m preaching. They had to be bought, someone had to pay for them.
But we just figure they’ll be there. We’re like the waiter a friend of mine met in the south. She’d never had grits but of course in the south, grits just come with breakfast. So she asked the waiter, “What exactly ARE grits?” He looked at her as if she was crazy and replied, “Well, ma’am, grits is grits.” Trying to make herself clear, she pushed on: “Well where do grits come from?” He thought for a moment and then said, “They come from the kitchen.” The truth is: everything comes from somewhere and the activities of this church, its ministries, it’s mission, do not come from the kitchen or the Church Council or some other place; they come from us, from each one of us. They come from our answer to the question, “What is God’s?”
Notice I didn’t say they come from the answer, “What should I give?” That’s the wrong question; giving here isn’t a donation to a cause or an organization; we don’t want what’s yours, in fact. Keep it: it’s yours. No, what makes this place go is when someone recognizes they belong to God and decides to use what they have for God. It could be a talent. We need the gifts and talents of every person. We have some people with great musical talents they recognize as gifts from God and thank God they share them here, because we’d have a lot tougher time praising God and singing alleluia without them. We have bakers and people who are great at greeting. We have painters, photographers; we have people who just come and appreciate it all, cooks, teachers, and people who know how to organize a work party.
What makes all those go together, what blends it like a good cook making a wonderful stew, is the spirit of God and the open hearted recognition that we belong to God and therefore everything we have, everything we are, belongs to God.
Of course, part of this is our money. What is money? It’s really a kind of battery, a stored up energy, an ability to get something done. What happens when you give the church a dollar? Nothing miraculous, really. We buy stuff and we pay people. Some of the money buys paper, some buys toner, and we use that to turn out the bulletin you hold in your hand each Sunday. Some of the money pays me, and because you pay me, I am available when someone needs a visit in the hospital, when a funeral is needed, when you need a calm, thoughtful person to talk to that you can trust. A good deal of it allows me to plan the sermon and worship that the bulletin describes. A good part of the money pays to make sure we have this beautiful, historic building in which to worship; the money pays to maintain it, heat it or cool it, and keep it up.
None of that’s a miracle but what is truly miraculous is what comes out of all that process. When we respond by freely, joyfully giving what is God’s, God takes that, inspires it and works in it. So the sermon and the singing becomes worship. The teams meet and a potluck dinner gets planned or a quilt gets made or people learn about the Bible. Children grow up, feeling welcomed and learning about the wonderful love of God. Others in the community find a welcoming place to meet, so that the building almost bursts with activity. That’s what happens when we give God what is God’s.
Soon, every member of this church and some who aren’t members will be invited to estimate their giving for next year. Over the next two weeks, we’ll have more information about this and I hope you’ll read it. On November 5, there will be a luncheon after church so you can hear from the Trustees and ask questions. What we hope today is that you will pray about this process. There’s a tendency we all have to do what we have done. This is a critical moment: we need, all of us, to think about what it means to be a steward and consider how we can help.
Now I don’t know how much you should give but I do know this: God knows. So what I want to say about pledging is very simple, very direct: please pray about it. Don’t ask what you gave last year, don’t ask what you should give, ask God what God wants. Start with the idea that it all belongs to God—start with the idea that you belong to God, that you are God’s living treasure.
Give God what is God’s: that’s what Jesus said to the Pharisees and the disciples and it’s what he says to us today. Give God what is God’s. And what is God’s? You—me—we are God’s living treasure. If we will faithfully, prayerfully, hopefully give God what is God’s, I know that God will work with it like a baker making bread; that God’s spirit will come into it like yeast and raise it up until all God’s children are fed and realize the wonderful love of God.
[Jesus said} The kingdom of heaven is like a king who prepared a wedding banquet for his son.
— Matthew 22:1 (NIV, used by permission)
When I was eight or so, I went to a church where the greatest value was silence. “Sit still,” my mother would say, and on the few occasions when children were allowed into the sanctuary, the very air seemed full of quiet. My friends and I were restless little boys and knew we didn’t belong in there.
We longed to be in the Good Room. The Good Room was the Kindergarten Sunday School room and it was full of big wooden toys. It had a wooden bus you could sit on and ride, blocks and puzzles and a rug. But then we were told we were too big for the Good Room.
Our room did not have a rug. Our room did not have toys. We had the Bad Room. Our room had a picture of Jesus with long hair. We all had crew cuts which on Sunday had a special wax applied to the front to make our hair stand straight up. Our room had confusing colored maps; these same maps are still sold by church supply stores today.
Mostly our room had little wooden chairs. The wooden chairs were usually pulled into a circle and a teacher would sit on one of them and hand out Sunday School papers. We were supposed to be quiet and read the papers. Then she would ask us questions and we were supposed to be quiet while good kids answered the questions quietly.
We were not good kids and on top of that, we itched. We itched from the moment our mothers made us put on the special Church Clothes until we got home and put on real clothes. It is impossible to sit in a wooden chair and itch quietly and we didn’t. Furthermore, we were endlessly fascinated by the possibilities of wooden chairs. They could be tipped back, for example, and we never tired of trying to discover just how far. A Ph.D. in Engineering would say we were trying to determine the limit case experimentally. We just knew it was incredibly funny when someone fell over. Our Sunday School was a constant battle between Quiet and Noise, which our teacher seemed to think translated into a battle between God and Satan. Satan was Noisy and so were we.
I mention all this because knowing that I grew up among people who believed silent children sitting in a circle of wooden chairs was the ultimate Goodness may help you understand how surprising it was when I discovered God loves a party. It’s true: read the scriptures and over and over again there are parties. Noisy parties. After creation, God gives the first people things that are good to eat and things that are beautiful; apparently, God cares about the decorations.
When God renews the promise of descendants to Abraham and Sarah, it’s at a dinner party. Later, when God tells the Hebrews they are going to get out of Egypt and go free, they’re told, “But before you go, have a party, a Passover seder,” gives directions for the food and makes sure everyone has enough and then God so enjoys the party that it becomes an annual festival. Later on, the ark of the covenant comes to Jerusalem and King David dances in the streets and embarrasses his wife. So it goes: on and on, party after party, down to Jesus, who explains the Kingdom of Heaven by saying it’s like the biggest, noisiest party his friends know about, a wedding celebration.
Jesus seems to like parties too. They’re all over the Gospels: John starts with a wedding at which Jesus supplies the wine; along the way to Jerusalem, he has time to stop for a dinner party at the home of a tax collector. One of the main complaints about him is that he eats with sinners: in other words, he has too good a time. Now he’s near the end, still trying to explain what life is like in lives that God governs and he tells this story about the biggest party anyone there can imagine, a royal wedding.
“The Kingdom of Heaven is like a king who prepared a wedding banquet for his son”, Jesus says. Weddings were a bit different then. First, you sent out an invitation, letting your friends know you were planning the party. but the invitation didn’t include a date or time. When the party was ready, you sent servants to tell everyone to come right away. A King’s wedding banquet would be the ultimate version of the biggest party. Now imagine the King, party prepared, oxen and cattle being barbecued, beer and wine all cool, special cakes baked, everything ready to go sending word to his friendly nobles. “Come to the wedding banquet!” But the invited guests don’t show up. They’re busy, they’re involved. They treat the king’s servants shamefully.
It’s always a temptation with a parable to start pinning labels on the characters and often this story gets read as if the king equals God and so on. That’s a mistake that’s likely to lose the point so let’s try not to do that. A parable is about an experience: so what’s being experienced here? What’s being compared? First: there’s the king, of course. Have you ever had a party? Sent invitations, cleaned and cleaned, made the food, decorated the house and then—waited. There’s that long moment when you wonder: will anyone come? So I imagine the King has that moment. This is an important occasion; maybe you remember watching a royal wedding in Britain. But now the King waits and waits to see what will happen, the aroma of the barbecue and the clink of the glasses being set wafting through.
There there’s the experience of the invited guests. In those days, party invitations were a two-part process: you got the invitation without a date, then when it was time to go, someone came and told you. Now I imagine that when these people got the original invitation, they noted it, stuck it on the refrigerator, discussed it with spouses: “Hey, you want to go to this wedding?”—and then went on with their lives. Those lives got busy. In this version of the story, it’s a king doing the inviting and the people who decided not to come are nobles; in other versions, the inviter is just a rich guy and the people invited are his friends. They don’t mean to brush him off; they just got busy, too busy to go.
What do you do when you meant to have a party and no one comes? Well, generally you get embarrassed, you send the food to the food pantry, you put away the decorations, you get annoyed with the people who were too busy. But see what happens here: the king does none of these things. Instead, he pursues his purpose. He has other people, poor people, people who have never been to a party, invited in, people off the streets and street people.
I imagine that was some party, don’t you? We’re left to imagine their experience. What is it like when you are poor to be treated like you are rich? What is it like when the world turns upside down, when the last really do become first?
Jesus tells this story just before he’s arrested and I think he means us to understand that when God reigns in us, we will understand this amazing, wonderful thing: nothing can stop the purpose of God. Like water running downhill, if you try to contain it, it finds another way; if it runs into a boulder, it will wear that boulder down, nothing can stop it flowing to the sea. Nothing can stop the purposes of God.
We are the means by which God does that. We are God’s treasure, sometimes hidden, always loved. The original guests invited to the party are used to good things but imagine the reaction of those who are brought in from the streets. Think how loud, how joyful, the party becomes with their surprise at being there. It turns out they are a treasure, one that had been hidden. Now that treasure is revealed and the party goes on, just as the king had hoped.
Now the church is meant to show what it looks like when God reigns. What does it look like? It looks like a party. You can’t do a party all by yourself. Soon, we’re all going to get an invitation to estimate what we will give in the coming year to this church. It’s really an invitation to a party: our mission is to make the party of God’s kingdom available and evident and open here and now, in this place, in this time. In the parable of the party, many of those invited look at their calendars and decide they have other, more important things. Some are doing business deals; some have family commitments. They miss the importance of the invitation the king has offered. Now in the Matthew version of this story that we read there’s a great huff and puff of angry reaction. But isn’t the real problem with missing the invitation that you miss the party?
This is the same problem the man who is thrown out of the wedding banquet has: he isn’t wearing a wedding garment. This is a symbol for his failure to act appropriately, to make a full commitment. What Jesus seems to be saying is that even if you come to the banquet, you have to do something. It isn’t all invitation; it’s also response.
The Kingdom of God is a party and you are invited, we are invited, each one of us, every one of us—everyone welcome. But the invitation isn’t everything. It takes some response, it takes some decision, it takes changing the way you look and the way you live. You can’t come to the party wearing the same old armor you wear out in the world—you have to put on a wedding garment. You can’t live out your faith in the same old behavior of yesterday—you have to make a daily decision, “Yes, I’m going to live out of the love of God.”
Come to the party: that’s God’s invitation. Our God is a nearby God, a God who invites us to a celebration, a God who cries when we cry, who laughs when we laugh. But living with God is not automatic, it takes your decision to put on the wedding garment of love, it takes your faith that God will be present, providing, trustworthy. Your contribution of you. God invites you to the party: get dressed and go!
Have you ever found a treasure? Maybe your grandparents had a house with an attic or a basement where you went and pored through things you sometimes could hardly understand. Maybe your mother draped you with costume jewelry or your father handed you a baseball and gruffly said, “Look at the signature on that, now that was a ballplayer.” Every church meeting house contains a treasure along with its congregation. Look around: many of us here think of the stained glass windows of this house as a treasure and people come to see what we see every Sunday. One congregation I served had a building that had stood since ten years before the Civil War and like a house where things accumulate, it was full of closets that held treasures.
But of all the closet treasures, the greatest was the Victorian silver. It was rarely mentioned; only once in a while someone would allude to “the valuables.” One day when I was avoiding working on the sermon and investigating closets, I found it. A full double size, floor to ceiling closet, overflowing with little soft bags which, when I opened them, contained a treasure trove of silver. There were cream pitchers and sugar bowls, large bowls for food and serving utensils. There were things I didn’t even know how to name: one I later learned was designed to hold and dispense salad dressing.
Like a child on Christmas, I shuttled back and forth, unwrapping and taking out each piece until the next door kitchen counter was full of old silver. That presented a problem, of course; it’s always more fun to take things out then to put them back. Somehow I knew that like Peter Rabbit, I had slipped into a forbidden garden and that if the farmer came along, I’d be in trouble. So I carefully wrapped each piece, put it back, closed the closet and determined to leave it alone.
I couldn’t, of course. Not long after, at a church council meeting, I mentioned as casually as I could that I happened to have found the church silver and that I thought at our next celebration we should get it out; it was too pretty to stay in a closet. Of course, I pursued the matter and when I did, I learned this: the silver was, in fact, a treasure, very valuable, very beautiful—everyone agreed—but it could not be used because it was tarnished.
For those who don’t know much about silver, as I didn’t, let me simply say that when silver sits, it acquires a dull layer of oxide, some places it turns black, and that’s called tarnished. More importantly, those in charge of the silver had pronounced it tarnished and didn’t understand why I was so dumb, so obtuse, not to realize that tarnished silver could not be shown, could not be used, could not be anything but in the closet. It was over; it was tarnished, unfit, worthless for use.
Now you and I are God’s treasure, creatures meant to reflect God’s glory. But often, just as the bright silver stops reflecting when it’s tarnished, we get tarnished and think our days of reflecting God are over. We’re not up to it; we’re not worthy to do it. Sometimes it’s something we’ve done, sometimes it’s something we’ve been; sometimes it’s something we’ve lost or added. We may be treasure but we are tarnished treasure and like the silver, we assume off in a dark closet is the appropriate place.
So Jesus tells this story, this shocking story, that we read this morning. He lived in a restless, violent world where unscrupulous bankers took advantage of people and many people worked for large farms that didn’t offer health insurance, pensions or anything else but a bare minimum wage. Restless, hungry poor people sometimes get violent and there were many instances of small peasant revolts. He tells this story. Some tenant farmers work in a vineyard and the owner lives far away; when he sends a slave to collect the profits, the tenants beat him up, in fact, they beat up several servants. Ultimately, the owner sends his son and heir, thinking this will make the tenants take the demand seriously. Instead, they beat the son up and murder him. I imagine Jesus telling this story, and brows knitting, frowns forming in the ring of listeners as he comes to his final question: “what will the owner do?”
We all know the answer, don’t we? We know what we’d do. The listeners know what the owner will do, he’ll do what owners always do: get the police, in this case, the Romans, come and get those murdering tenants and string them up. A life for a life, the judge will say, and justice will be done. “What will the owner do?”—why even ask? We all know how this ends.
The world’s answer to problems is violence. The tenants feel the injustice of sharecropping and see no way out except to kill the owner’s son. Surely the owner will reply with the authorized violence of the police forces. Who’s right? Who’s wrong? Last week I watched a documentary on the Vietnam War. One of the most moving moments was watching a former North Vietnamese soldier say that in war there is only death and destruction, right and wrong don’t matter.
We’ve all seen this deadly dance. We can imagine the people hearing Jesus tell this story. Some are tenant farmers, surely, or come from that world: they know, perhaps they remember when an owner came and killed everyone after a revolt. Others are authorities, owners, and their agents. They’re already mad; Matthew sets this story in the Temple precinct, where not long before Jesus overturned the tables of the money changers.“What will the owner do?” We all know, don’t we?
Except—except Jesus is about to demonstrate the most stunning, amazing answer to his own question. In the crowd around him, there are people already plotting his death. This story is told in the days just before the crucifixion. His friends will remember the story precisely because only a few days later, just like the son in the story, the owner of the vineyard-—for hundreds of years, Israel has been described as “a vineyard of the Lord’s”-—the owner of this vineyard is God. What God does is astonishing: God does not punish the killers, God saves them.
Here is the great mystery of God’s love—that when we are tarnished treasure, even when the most tarnished among us, God yet is trying, seeking, looking for a way to love us back into acting like the treasures God made us. Maybe you don’t feel worthwhile; maybe you feel tarnished. God doesn’t care what you feel—God cares for you.
Because God cares, we are called to care. This church is a community of care. Two nights this week I was here when the whole building was full with people healing in some groups, sharing in others. I know that this week all of us have been held rapt by the violence in Las Vegas. There is no way to disconnect this violence from the violent culture in which we live and the river of guns that flows through it. To the question of violence, God offers this answer: God’s love. And the expression of that love through the way we use our lives and our treasure to extend that love.
The tarnished treasure at that church did eventually come out of its bags and back to a dinner table. A couple of years after I found it, I got tired of arguing about it. We were planning to mark Maundy Thursday communion, with a full dinner, a seder, the traditional Passover celebration. Passover remembers when God saved a people who had become slaves, a reminder of the first communion, in all its passion, darkness, hope and grace. Part of the seder tradition is that you set the table with your best stuff, best china, best cups, best silver.
We pulled the tarnished treasure out of its closet. We didn’t have the time or people to polish the silver but we set it out nevertheless, on white table clothes, with the best church china we owned. We sat down to dinner, to a dinner at the Lord’s Table, someone turned the lights down, and then the candles were lit. Suddenly, the treasure shined, reflecting the light of that moment, reflecting the love shared by a small congregation as we joined together to remember how God had first loved us. The tarnish didn’t matter; only the treasure did. In the light of the candles, in the gathering of people around the Lord’s Table, only the reflected light of God’s love mattered. It just took seeing the silver in the right light to appreciate its beauty.
That’s how it is with us. We are tarnished; God uses us anyway. We are God’s treasure. What matters isn’t our perfection but our persistence, our persistent willingness to choose love over hate, to see others as brothers and sisters, to seek to live as God’s blessing. Maybe you are tarnished; God still sees you as a treasure.
The choir is going to sing a song in a few minutes about a simple blessing. That’s us: that’s how we are meant to live, understanding that we are stewards of God’s gifts, not their owners, giving thanks for the simple blessings which sustain our lives. In turn, we have the possibility to become a simple blessing to others, to give our gifts as well. The kingdom of heaven is not fulfilled by any act of violence or domination. It is fulfilled in this exchange of blessing, bearing the fruit of the spirit.
What will the owner of the vineyard do? The ultimate answer is Easter; the answer is the resurrection. When the vineyard owner is God, the owner will look to the original purpose of the vineyard: to grow grapes and make wine. And the owner will do whatever it takes to make sure the grapes are harvested, the wine is made, the cup of the covenant is filled until it overflows, even if it takes forgiving and reusing the tarnished tenants.
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself – Philippians 2:1-13
What’s on your mind today? I went to a seminar once where the widely known lecturer, an expert at preaching and a professor began speaking to a room full of preachers by saying something like this: “I know that you are preachers and most of you have to go back and create a sermon this week. So I know a lot of you are thinking great thoughts, your mind is already full of what you want to say. But I want to speak today about the real question you should be asking: what’s on the mind of your listeners?” So I start out every week trying to think about that question.
Some people have taken it to a new level; they let their listeners text them questions during the sermon. I’m not quick enough to do that and while I use my iPhone to record the sermon, I put it on airplane mode. Of course, I really don’t know what’s going on in your mind today. Some I imagine are thinking about what comes next: lunch maybe or things to do, some are worrying, some are drifting off.
One thing on the mind of many of us is the damage done by hurricanes. How can we watch pictures of people, first in Florida and Texas, now in Puerto Rico, whose whole lives have been reduced to simply life itself. No possessions, no homes, just the basics of survival: food, shelter, water. At the same time, I can’t help but notice our Congress is focusing on creating a tax cut for corporations and wealthy people with the delight of a child writing a Christmas list. I notice the contrast in value: the emphasis on riches for the richest, the desperation of people for water that flows from our taps as easily as the twist of a wrist.
The contrast raises the question of value: what makes it worth it to a billionaire to make one more million dollars? What is life worth when you lose things, perhaps everything? What do we value? I lost my Tilley hat this week: a canvas sailing hat with a wide brim that could be bent to just the angle to keep a low sun out of your eyes and sweat stains from 30 years of sailing. It flew off in a gust of wind while I was sailing in gusty conditions with big waves and I knew there was no way to retrieve it. Jacquelyn hated that hat; she wouldn’t let me wear it off the boat. I loved it because I’d had it so long. Do you have things you love because you’ve had them a long time? What really IS valuable after all?
Roman culture was not so different than ours. Back then, as now, rich people drove culture, set an example and they did it by having expensive, valuable things. They filled houses with them; archaeologists dig them up today, mostly broken, because an archaeologist’s idea of a good time is digging in a landfill. But we know from pictures and written accounts and the occasional well preserved home that Roman lives were lived in a culture that clearly connected wealth and prosperity for honor and goodness.
So it must have seemed strange to the Christians in the Roman city of Philippi to hear Paul’s letter to them with its stunning message about Christ losing everything. This is how he summarizes the life of Jesus
…though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross.
No riches; no list of victories won, challenges met, games sponsored, statues erected, not even a list of charities he supported. But this stunning declaration: equal to God, yet emptying himself.
It’s an amazing thought. Jacquelyn and I are at that point in life where we are getting rid of things, and it’s hard. The wind and water took my Tilley hat; I didn’t have the heart to get rid of it. Selling stuff online or even in person takes letting go. And here Paul tells us that Christ let go of everything, without even ebaying any of it.
The Philippians knew slaves, saw them every day, Roman society was full of them, some of the Christians there may have been slaves. Everyone knew they were nothing, no one to emulate; no one saw a slave and said, “I want to become like him.”
What Paul is preaching is the action part of Christian faith, the day to day business of doing it, being it. And the key is: thinking like Jesus. Paul says, “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus“, and he explains what this means: letting go of your own ambition, humility, serving others. The Book of Eli is a movie about a world after a total break down of civilization and its central character is a man who carries the last Bible. When someone asks him what it says, he replies, “Do a little more for everyone else than you ask them to do for you.”
Now today is World Communion Sunday; we celebrate today sharing in being the body of Christ with all other churches around the world. But what is the body of Christ without the mind of Christ? Sadly, today in some churches, people are being told that prosperity is the real treasure; in some, that it’s ok to exclude people because of who they love or how they love or how they look. But here Paul, here the scripture itself tells us what’s on Christ’s mind: loving others, seeking the genuine humility of serving others until life itself becomes just another Tilley hat that can be given back.
[Christ] he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross.
Today we will share the sacrament of communion, and it’s always important to remember the context of communion. Jesus knows where things are going; the gospel accounts unite in suggesting that he understood the betrayal Judas was enacting. He knows he is about to be arrested; he knows he will die. So what does he do? He throws a party.
It reminds me of my mother. For her 85th birthday, my mother suddenly asked my brothers and I to have a party for her. She had gotten word from her doctor a while before that her cancer seemed cured and she was feeling better. She wanted it at the same place my father’s funeral reception had been held, she wanted fancy food and music. So we put together the party, we had Frank Sinatra music—my mother never got over her girlhood crush on Sinatra—and it was only years later that I understood. My mother knew she was coming toward the end; she was giving things up, her house, most of her possessions, and she knew it couldn’t be too long before what she gave up included her life. She knew there would be a funeral; she knew there would be a party. She didn’t want to miss it.
Communion is the party celebrating Jesus’ final act of humility: he’s about to give up his life, for others, a final act of emptying. Now in this church we share communion by passing it hand to hand in the pews. That means every one of us serves someone else, hands them the plates of bread and the cups. As we serve others, we are reminded that serving others is what the mind of Christ means. Like children practicing setting the table, we practice here serving others so that as we go out from here, we will not go out simply with what was on our mind but with the mind of Christ. What’s on your mind now? May we go forward with the mind of Christ.
September always reminds me of the time three years ago when our family first arrived in Albany and I became your pastor. We were, all of us, out of breath. Like a sprinter completing a race, we came here from a rushed, hard-working summer of moving. We lived in a larger house in Michigan with lots of storage. So we accumulated things. Now we knew that meant getting rid of things. So day by day, we cleaned and packed up. As the time shortened, we became more and more frantic. We hired a man to help us and he filled his pickup truck over and over with stuff for the dump. We took so many loads to the Salvation Army that they asked us to stop coming, stop donating. Always looming was that day in August when the movers would arrive to load everything and bring it here.
I thought about that experience this week as I read the parable of the workers in the vineyard. Harvest is a frantic time. Grape picking is handwork and there’s far too much for this vineyard owner and his family. So the next morning, early, he gets up, hurries out of the house to where the day laborers gather. Every city then, every city now, has such a place. He looks around, he hires enough to get the job done, offering to pay them the daily rate, one denarius. I imagine some of the men smiling: a denarius is a living wage. No one gets rich on it but it’s enough to get you through to tomorrow and maybe the day after and who knows what will happen then? These men live day to day. So they hurry off to the field and begin picking grapes. But the owner can see it’s not going fast enough so he goes back, and hires more, telling them he will pay them what is right. In other words, he’ll be fair.
Even as the day begins to cool, as the workday begins to close, he is still hiring more workers, desperately trying to get the harvest in. By now, he recognizes some of those he passed over earlier. “Why are you waiting,” he asks, and of course they reply with the obvious: they haven’t been hired. Imagine the desperation of those men. All day long, they’ve watched as others left to work on farms; all day long they’ve been hungry; with no job, they have nothing to buy lunch. All day long, each time someone came to hire, they hoped to be chosen but they haven’t been. They face going home to tell their families there won’t be a wage today, perhaps there won’t be supper, or bread tomorrow. So to those left at the end of the day, his hiring must have been especially happy. They know they won’t make much; after all, the sun is already setting! Still, something is better than nothing and I think they must have been glad to go, glad to make even a few pennies, to make something for the day.
Finally, the sun is down; the workday ends. The hired men drift in to the area around the sheds, ready to be paid, already tasting the dinner they’ll buy. They’re hot and tired; so is the owner. So far, this whole story is so commonplace it’s boring. It happens hundreds of times. The people hearing Jesus know it, they live it, they must have wondered, “What’s the point?” Perhaps some of them are day laborers; all of them know how hard harvest is, how frantic, how everyone works and works to get it done. So perhaps they are beginning to drift off, their attention wandering. He’s telling them what they know and then suddenly he isn’t.
The owner breaks the workers into groups, starting with those hired last. Everyone knows they will receive less than a day’s wage; after all, they only worked a couple of hours. Fair is fair. So imagine how stunned they are when they are given a full day’s wage. Imagine the surprised looks, too tired to even celebrate. Group after group are paid, all the same: a full day’s wage, regardless of how long they worked. At first, the early hires, seeing what’s going on must have thought: oh, great, we’ll get a bonus but they don’t—they get the same as everyone else: a day’s wage. So, of course, they begin to grumble. It isn’t fair, is it?
Wouldn’t you grumble? And then Jesus drops the conclusion on them. The owner says that it’s none of their business if he decides to pay everyone the same; they agreed to work for a day’s wage, they got their wage, the contract is fulfilled, the debt paid. I imagine these workers leaving, also, but with a different attitude, still grumbling, still saying, “Not fair”. Wouldn’t you?
Jesus is asking us to imagine acting out something he apparently said many times: the last will be first, the first last; the Kingdom’s arrival means a reversal. Well, we’re all in favor of that but we seldom ask what it really means. Now he’s imagining it: what if the last really are first; what if you—all of you, all of us—who are first get paid last and no more than everyone else? Ouch!
A key issue of this story is the notion of a living wage. The standard daily wage for a worker in Jesus’ time is a denarius. it’s enough to buy food for the day or two; in that sense, it’s a living wage. So if you fall below that, if you don’t make the days’ wage, you don’t have enough to eat, enough to get through the next day. Today, a swelling movement including the United Church of Christ is building support for raising the minimum wage so that it will be a true living wage. I imagine in many pulpits today, that’s what’s being preached and it’s a good and worthy cause.
But I don’t think it’s the point of this parable. Every parable invites us to experience something and this one invites us to experience the workers. It asks us to imagine their hope of being hired, their hope of being paid and their sense of fairness, of justice. “I’ll pay you what is right,” the owner says when he hires them and this seems to be an agreed daily wage, a living wage. When the owner pays those hired last the same as the others, the parable compares their grumbling with the owner’s generosity.
Where does that generosity originate? Perhaps it is in the compassion that comes from noticing the condition of the workers themselves. This is, after all, how some great movements have begun. The movement to abolish slavery began in this country in 1789 among the Society of Friends and soon spread to others. One of those was a free African American who had gone to Sunday School at the Second Congregational Church in Norwich, CT. David Ruggles moved to New York City where he helped lead abolitionist efforts. Others were also working to end slavery. Still, the movement grew slowly until the 1850’s when Harriet Beecher Stowe, another Congregationalist, published Uncle Tom’s Cabin. It’s a sentimental novel but it reached beyond the intellectual arguments of the abolitionists and made people feel the horror of slavery. President Lincoln, himself, is said to have believed the book was a major reason for the passions that ignited into the Civil War, when southern states seceded in order to defend slavery.
Israel was arrested, tried, convicted and imprisoned for the crime. I’m sure Johnson didn’t think it was enough; I can only imagine the restless anger she must have felt. She talks about seeing Israel in court and wanting to hurt him. She continued to be obsessed with him and made repeated requests to meet him when he was in prison. Finally, he agreed. It had been 16 years since the murder. Israel, a 16-year-old boy when he committed the crime, had grown into a man in his early 30’s.
“I wanted to know if you were in the same mindset of what I remembered from court, where I wanted to go over and hurt you,” Johnson tells Israel. “But you were not that 16-year-old. You were a grown man. I shared with you about my son.”
“And he became human to me,” Israel says.
At the end of their meeting at the prison, Johnson was overcome by emotion.
“The initial thing to do was just try and hold you up as best I can,” Israel says, “just hug you like I would my own mother.”
Johnson says, “After you left the room, I began to say, ‘I just hugged the man that murdered my son.’
“And I instantly knew that all that anger and the animosity, all the stuff I had in my heart for 12 years for you — I knew it was over, that I had totally forgiven you.”
Johnson set down the burden of anger. She forgave this man who had so terribly injured her. She went on to help other mothers of murdered children as well.
Now what Johnson did isn’t fair, is it? I know some are thinking, “I could never do that”; I know it because it’s what I thought when I first read it. Yet that’s the destination Jesus is leading us toward: a place where, as he says, burdens are light because he takes them up; where forgiveness is the rule.
This is what the Kingdom of Heaven is like: it’s not fair because we could never survive fair.
No, the Kingdom is where the principle isn’t fair, the principle isn’t what we earn, the principle isn’t what we deserve: it’s what we need. This is how God works: giving what we need, hoping we will accept it, use it, share it. That is indeed a living wage, it is what we need to live in the light of the love of God, it is meant to be shared.