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"The Gratitude Economy" Matthew 20:1-16, Exodus 16:2-15

UnfairLife is so unfair!  It starts the day we are born.  One baby is born a girl in Lahore, Pakistan and another a boy in Palo Alto, CA.  You already have in mind a picture of their destiny.  Life gets more unfair as soon as your next sibling is born.  We are hard wired to make sure the cookie gets divided down the middle.  Some people are born short, you might think I was born to be tall, however I wanted to be 6’8” and play in the NBA, so I feel too short.   Some people are born ahead of their time in a world not ready for their ideas, and far to many die far to young when they still had so much to give.  A lifelong smoker can hack away till they are 95 while people in perfectly good health with great habits die of cancer in the prime of life.  Some people complain about teacher’s salaries while the world’s billionaires make that much money every minute of every day!  And guess who pays a higher percentage in taxes!  Have I convinced you yet that life is unfair?

One of our biggest theological conundrums is trying to understand how God can be called just when life is so obviously unfair.  God clearly has a different view of justice than we do, just read randomly through the Gospels.  Who do you identify with first in today’s Gospel Lesson?  Are you thinking, “It is so nice that even those who worked just a little still got a day’s wage?  Life should be more like that.”  Or do you want to yell at this Vineyard owner for being ridiculously unfair?  Who ever heard of such a thing, paying everyone the same no matter how much they worked?  Don’t you know Communism failed?  Russia is capitalist now, and their leader, Vladimir Putin, is the wealthiest man in the world.  So there!  So my point is….I’m not sure what…I just know this is not fair.

Are you envious because I am generous?” says the vineyard owner.  “Of course I am.”  Why?  Because everyone did not get what they deserve.  That is the unspoken belief underlying our sense of justice.  Justice is getting what you deserve.  You work hard and it pays off.  If you are slacker, there are consequences.  But what do you deserve?  How would you know, who decides?  Would you really want to get what you deserve in all circumstances, even when you really blew it?   It sounds great to get what you deserve, until I am the one who made a bad choice, said the wrong thing, feel short.  Then I want a break.  How fair do I really want life to be?

Jesus seldom appeals to our sense of fairness.  In reality he challenges are self-serving ideas about fairness and instead models the moral world by a generous spirit, a forgiving heart, and a reconciling love.  Here the vineyard owner’s question again: “Are you envious because I am generous?”  The older brother of the Prodigal Son was.  He was upset because he was the deserving one.  Those who wanted to stone to death a woman caught in adultery were stopped in the tracks when asked, “Those without sin may cast the first stone.”  Jesus is the generous bringer of a new Kingdom, and new Commonwealth where a generous spirit reigns, where all people matter.

Manna-stalactites1God’s generosity does not begin with Jesus.  It was there even in the wilderness with freed slaves marching to a new world.  They were hungry and tired and wondered if they starve or die of thirst.  But Moses had lived in that wilderness for years.  He knew strong winds off the Mediterranean blew flocks of quail down to the Sinai to rest, and it was easy to catch them by hand.  He had gone out many mornings and harvested the sweet, sticky residue of the Tamarisk plant as the sun dried it, and balled it up in his finger and popped it into his mouth.  He showed it to his fellow travelers and they called it “Manna” which is Hebrew for “What is this stuff?”  And then he preached to them and said, “Here is the word of God: you shall have bread by morning, and you shall have meat by evening, and God will provide for you even here in the wilderness.”

And he turned manna into an object lesson, a metaphor for our faith in God.  “You can only gather enough of it for one day, for it spoils the next.  But don’t worry, because God is generous and will provide for you the next.”   We struggle to really believe there will be enough for us.  We hoard, try to store it all up, but it is all for not.  We must continuously be replenished. 

Climate changeThis is how the economy of God works.  (And by economy I don’t mean just finance, but that too.  Greek for economy is “oikos” which means “the household.”  God’s household is a place of generosity, with enough food for all members, overflowing love for all, forgiveness to heal the heart, justice to order activities, and peace when we work within this generous spirit of this household.  Hunger, injustice and evil all result when we break the flow of God’s generosity.  “Earth provides enough to satisfy everyone’s needs, but not everyone’s greed.” said Mahatma Gandhi.  That is why people are marching in New York today to draw attention to global climate change.  Protecting the planet and living in harmony with it is not bad for the economy, for the earth is the source of the economy.   The wind and the sun, the tides and waterfalls, and geothermal energy from the earth can provide an abundance of energy if that is our goal.  There is only one reason to relentlessly pull oil, gas and coal from the ground and pour carbon into our atmosphere, foul our air and water.  Greed.  There is enough for our need, but not for our greed. 

I started this sermon noting that life is not fair.  It never will be.  But I don’t need everything to be fair.  I trust that God is generous.  I know there is enough love to go around.  I have hope that humanity can overcome our urgent challenge to secure our future as the climate changes.  I have faith that our actions make a difference, because God hears our prayers and gives us strength and courage.  I have confidence that God is still speaking, and that we are still listening!

How Many Times? Matthew 18: 21-35

Mandela 10Sermon for September 14, 2014 @ First Churches

 The story opens with Peter’s question about how many times you should forgive a person.  He is wondering if there is a time when forgiveness becomes absurd because someone keeps on hurting us.  I imagine most of us have someone in our lives that is very difficult to forgive.  They just don’t get it.  They know where all our buttons are and they just keep on pressing them.  We try to be Christian and pray the Lord’s Prayer, “Forgive us our debts and we forgive our debtors.”  After several times of forgiveness we may feel like we are the doormat where someone else wipes their feet and we pray to God and say, “Lord, I have tried to forgive, but I have reached my limit.”  Peter had reflected on this, and to show that he had a magnanimous spirit, he says, “Should we forgive even up to seven times?”  Seven times seems like quite a bit, doesn’t it?!  In the Jewish mind, seven is a number that represents completion and finality.  Throughout the Bible we find 7 days of creation, seven signs in the book of revelation, and so on.  Surely this would be more than enough.  I have the right answer now Jesus!


Jesus answers with a word play on the number 7 and says that we should forgive 70 times 7.  He doesn’t mean that we should keep track and forgive someone 490 times, but rather he is saying we must throw away the calculator and live a lifestyle of continual forgiveness.  At this time I imagine the disciples responded much like I would, being absolutely dumbfounded at such a notion.  So Jesus then tells a parable to make his point:


To paraphrase a bit, Enron goes bankrupt owing billions of dollars to creditors and its employees, creating economic chaos.  That is how much money the servant owed in Jesus’s parable.  (A talent is about 130 pounds, price of gold is $1286 per ounce, so each talent is about $2.7 million, so 1000 talents is $2.7 billion.) In an unprecedented move, the top executives asked for time, promising to pay everyone back every dollar they owed, even it meant selling several of their Florida condos, so the Federal Judge agreed to extend them mercy.  Then the executives went out and began to shake down every person they could find for money, hiding their assets offshore and filing lawsuits against even the smallest creditor.  So the Judge stepped in and threw them all into a Federal Maximum Security Prison, along with their wives, ex-wives and children. 


That may sound like a story with a happy ending, but that is not the point.  Jesus is saying that all of us have experienced God’s forgiveness for some sin.  None of us are totally righteous and need God’s grace to be free from our mistakes.  If we are to experience God’s forgiveness and then turn around and be unforgiving to those who sin against us, we fall short of the call to discipleship.  Jesus is reminding Peter of the source of forgiveness.  Our own good intentions are not the source, but rather the powerful grace of God towards us and all people is the source.  But still we struggle to live this out in the real world.


A group of people were struggling with the nature of forgiveness at a Bible study class I attended at a Mennonite Church while on sabbatical.  Several of my international colleagues from the Summer Peace Institute also were there, providing a cross-cultural look at the difficulties.  First a man who had interned at a Rape Crisis Center spoke.  He was concerned that the counselors would not let the women speak about forgiveness in their therapy.  It was seen as dis-empowering and unhelpful to taking control of their lives.  He thought the counselors had a false notion of forgiveness, as if it was saying that evil is OK.  In contrast, he felt that forgiveness was really for us, to help us move on after trauma, so it was essential for the healing process.


Next, Lien, my roommate from Viet Nam spoke up.  He had spent five years in a single jail cell for working for democracy in the early 1990s.   Many people had starved to death as the government stood by and did nothing.   Who do you forgive when a whole system killed people?  “I don’t hate the Communists,” he said, “but history must not be forgotten and repeated.”


Joe Campbell, who runs a mediation center in Belfast spoke next.  He told the story of a family who had lost a son in an IRA car bomb attack.  They publicly forgave the IRA at a very tense time of the Troubles.  This created a great deal of psychological turmoil for hundreds of families who had lost loved ones on both sides of the conflict who were still struggling with the process of forgiveness.  His counsel to people was not to forgive and forget, but to remember and change.  Acts of violence are more than individual acts.  Only a few people actually pull the trigger in a war, but society as a whole creates the conditions of hatred and injustice.  So forgiveness is to remember the past and change our behavior and change the societal conditions.


A Mennonite missionary who had returned from El Salvador asked, “What are the implications when so many people have been killed, as in our Civil War?  How far can forgiveness go?  I find that I can bring people together from opposing sides for simple tasks like building a regional water system, but they will not meet in each others homes or share a meal together.  We just try to work at the simple level of trust, then allow grace to deepen and work itself out. 


“But what about our duty as Christians to forgive others?” said Francois, a woman from Congo.  She told the story of being chased out of Congo when a group of rebels attacked her village.  She had to sleep by a roadside for three days in hiding.  When she tried to go back the first person she met was a woman from her church who had supported the rebels.  Francios said she had no choice but to forgive.


A woman from Virginia said that she had been in a car accident a few years before and had been seriously injured.  She had gone through many hardships during her recovery and had been very bitter against the driver who hit her.  Guilt at the inability to forgive had plagued her, doubling her misery.  Then one day,” she said, “I realized that forgiveness is not a duty, it is the answer.  When we forgive the grace comes to heal our hearts.”


I learn two things from these stories.  First, working out forgiveness in the complexity of life is a subtle art.  There are no simple formulas or prayers that will simply take care of the problem for us.  I can't tell you what forgiveness will look like in your life any more than I could tell Michelangelo how to paint the ceiling of the Cistine Chapel.  The second thing I learn is that we can't walk away from forgiveness.  It is painful work to go through the process of forgiveness, but so is living with the open wounds of unresolved anger and resentment.  Forgiveness is not a virtue that comes from within, nor is it a duty we owe to someone else.  It is a cry to God that says, "Lord, heal my heart."  Forgiveness is not an easy answer to our problems, but it is the most powerful answer.


“A Binding, Loosening Community” Matthew 18:18-20

Sermon for September 7, 2014 @ First Churches

Hillel-Shammai-346For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” 

I love this text.  I was excited to see it as the featured Gospel for Gathering Sunday, because today as we gather ourselves for a new beginning of the Fall Church Season; we hear the good news!-Christ is among us today!   We missed out on meeting the real Jesus, hearing him preach and shaking hands with him at coffee hour, liking his stuff on Facebook.  We were born too late.  But don’t despair, because when we meet in his name, his spirit is here and we know him.  So we are gathered, Jesus is alive among us-NOW WHAT?


Here’s the rest of the Gospel text: “If you bind or loose something on earth (or at church council?), then that same binding and loosing occurs in heaven! If two of you get together and agree on anything, then the Father in heaven will make it happen.  What do we do with that?  As a blogger for a website called “The Hardest Questions” puts it:


I wouldn’t even want that to be true. I don’t want God taking instructions from me and my knucklehead friends. What does it even mean that something is loosed in heaven...How are we to take seriously Jesus’ claim that the Father in heaven will do anything we ask as long as there are two of us doing the asking?


As many atheists point out, this is what is wrong with religion-too many people assuming their misguided notions are coming from God’s lips.  We go around telling God what to do.  Quite a few religious people seem to agree that evolution did not happen, women shouldn’t have birth control and can’t decide things for themselves, gay people should not marry, we should not help the poor, ancient land disputes should be settled by rockets into Haifa and invading neighborhoods with tanks in Gaza and what the world really needs right now is a new Muslim Caliphate stretching across Syria and Iraq, beheading people with swords along the way. (Don’t they know drones are so much more effective?)  Just ask Liberty College, the Christian school that trains the most drone pilots in America.)  Clearly we need to be careful with this text.  People agree on lots of stupid things.


What does it mean to bind and loose things on earth and into heaven?  I found an answer in the 1906 version of the Jewish Encyclopedia (so thanks Google, but stop spying on me!) In Jesus day, this was a common term for the scholarly practice of deciding if a particular biblical commandment was applicable to a contemporary situation. 


Jewish rabbis “bound” the law when they determined that a commandment was applicable to a particular situation, and they “loosed” the law when they determined that a word of scripture (while eternally valid) was not applicable under certain specific circumstances.”


In Jesus day there were two competing rabbinical schools, those who followed Rabbi Shammai and those who followed Rabbi Hillel.  There are over 300 recorded examples in the Talmud of their disagreements, though tradition says they had great respect for each other.  There is an ancient joke explaining their differences in saying:  “Shammai binds, Hillel loosens.”  In other words the struggle between those who read the Bible literally and those who believe the context matters has ancient roots.


Here are a couple examples from scripture of Jesus doing this, right here in Matthew Gospel.  In the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5:21-22), Jesus says, 21 “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ 22 But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, [a] you will be liable to judgment.”  So Jesus is taking the 6th Commandment “you shall not murder: and binding it to daily actions when we act in anger towards those whom we love.  Don’t even start on the road to violence.  Today I could imagine Jesus saying the sixth commandment against murder should apply to getting some reasonable gun laws so we don’t have 10,000 murders annually, so that we don’t live in a society where for every death of soldier in Afghanistan, 18 children are shot and killed.  When Gov. Duval Patrick quoted Leviticus “Welcome the stranger among you,” in support of immigrants, he was binding that scripture to a contemporary situation. Now you may agree or disagree, but I think you see what binding a text means.


Jesus also loosened certain commands of scripture. 

“In 12:9-14, Jesus looses the prohibition against performing work on the Sabbath with regard to works of healing and then declares, “It is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.” The latter pronouncement would potentially allow Sabbath prohibitions to be loosed in a great many other instances as well.”


We loosen texts today when we do not believe we are bound by ancient dietary codes such as not eating shellfish, nor the seven passages about homosexuality that were to protect boys from sexual exploitation by adults, so we loosen people to love and marry regardless of sexual orientation.  When a politician calls poor people moochers and takers and cuts the food stamp budget, they are loosing scripture and saying that all the hundreds passages on feeding the hungry and doing justice do not apply in society today. 


What is Jesus telling his disciples?  (According to Matthew.)

Consider this.  It is the Chief Priests in the Temple and the Pharisee elite who claim to have the power to bind and loosen in the interpretation of scripture and the law.  Jesus is putting that power to interpret scripture into their hands. That is what our early Congregationalist and Baptist fore-bearers believed.  The truth is known most clearly in the gathered people, because the living Spirit of Jesus is present in our gathering as we study scripture we are called to bind and loosen. (Shameless plug here to attend Bible Study, small group later in the Fall, and Annual Meeting.) What is really amazing is this: when we finally get it right, what we bind and loosen on earth breaks through in heaven and God works to create and renew the world with us. 


I hear in this text a call to be a binding, loosing community.  We are a binding community when we provide a clear moral compass, not letting people off the hook regarding scriptures calling us to justice and compassion. We are a loosing community when we remove the undo burdens placed upon people by negative religion.  When we free people to love, we are loosing.  When people feel judged and shamed by the church for past actions, we seek to set them free because God is love and overflows with amazing grace.  


And how will we know when we get it right?  In this world of competing values, how do we know we are anywhere near the truth?  Remember those to Rabbis, Shammai who binds and Hillel who loosens?  The Talmud tells that a gentile came to Shammai saying that he would convert to Judaism if Shammai could teach him the whole Torah in the time that he could stand on one foot. Shammai drove him away with a builder's measuring stick! Hillel, on the other hand, converted the gentile by telling him, "That which is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. That is the whole Torah; the rest is commentary. Go and study it."


What Jesus adds to this is his call to do this together, and God Spirit will move among us and through us.