Come to the Banquet


Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 143; 147:12-20, Numbers 23:11-26, Romans 8:1-11, Matthew 22:1-14

After the Parable of the Husbandmen, Matthew presents us the Parable of the Wedding Banquet. In the first parable, a landowner hired tenants to farm his vineyard. When he sent his servants and son to collect, the tenants killed them. The landowner killed the tenants and replaced them with more suitable staff.

In the second parable, a king prepares a wedding banquet for his son. He sends servants to gather the invited guests, but the guests refuse to come. He sends more servants, who share details about the sumptuous feast, but the guests seize, mistreat, and kill them. After the king’s army destroys those who rejected him, he sends more servants to invite anyone they can find, until the wedding hall is filled. One guest is inexplicably without wedding clothes, and the king throws him out.

We could interpret these parables as lessons about a harsh God, but these stories – especially read back-to-back without the artificial separation of chapters – say something more poignant. In both parables, the God figure generously invites people to participate in his abundance. The people not only repeatedly reject his offers, they kill his true servants. More than simple disobedience, or even indifference, the rejection is a deep betrayal. These lessons say God’s default attitude toward us is one of eager welcome, and that trying his patience to the breaking point takes some serious effort.

When the king invites the second group of guests to the banquet, he makes no distinction between good and bad. The guest who rejects the wedding clothes (which would have been provided by the king) has already been forgiven, and still chooses to dishonor his benefactor. When we accept the invitation to God’s banquet, Christ has already wiped the slate for us prior to our arrival, but we would be foolish to take it for granted.

No matter what harsh teachings you may hear, remember God does not eagerly pounce on your failure, but desires you to enjoy life in his abundance. It is not something we can win or that God capriciously takes from us, but it is ours to lose.

Comfort: God is rooting for you to accept Him.

Challenge: Some people are determined to reject God. We are still to love them.

Prayer: Generous God, thank your for the life of abundance you freely offer. Amen.

Discussion: Have you ever felt like rejecting God? What did you do?

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One and done?


Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 65; 147:1-11, Numbers 22:41-23:12, Romans 7:13-25, Matthew 21:33-46

One tenet of Calvinism is the belief that God has predetermined who will be “elected” (believers saved by grace) and who will not. Though there are varying schools of thought on the interaction of belief and election, and people ask how they can know if they are elected, the prevailing presumption seems to be that belief is evidence you have been elected. But really you only know that you believe at this moment. People and circumstances constantly change.

In the Parable of the Husbandmen, a landowner (God) plants a vineyard (the nation of Israel), leases it to some tenants (the leaders of Israel), and leaves the country. While he is away, he sends servants (the prophets of old) to claim the produce, but the tenants beat, kill, and stone them. Finally the landowner sends his son (Jesus) but the servants kill him, too.

It seems clear the tenants believed they could establish themselves as the rightful occupants, beneficiaries, and heirs of the vineyard. They had been hand-picked by the landowner, but turned out to be untrustworthy. Unsurprisingly, the religious leaders in Jesus’s audience were not fans of this story. Without debating the merits of Calvinism, can we see how this parable illustrates the dangers of taking one’s own righteousness for granted?

As with many things in Christianity, humility in this area serves us well. Yes, believers should rejoice in our salvation. But we should not assume that automatically makes us good caretakers of the faith. It is never our own convictions and strengths that save us, but the grace of God. We might think of the tenants as evil, but as Rebecca Solnit (paraphrasing Mary McCarthy) says: “we are all the heroes of our own stories.” In other words, without being open to outside perspectives, we aren’t the best judges of our own righteousness; we need to remain open to the idea we could become the bad tenants. The fruits of the spirit are not ours to horde, but to return to God when called to do so. Salvation is not a one-time deal, but something we accept every day.

Comfort: God desires your salvation.

Challenge: Though our salvation is a cause for joy, our faith must remain humble.

Prayer: God of Salvation, teach me to serve you and not my own interests. Amen.

Discussion: How do you feel about predestination?

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The Unknown God


Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 67; 150, Numbers 21:4-9, 21-35, Acts (17:12-21) 17:23-24, Luke 13:10-17

While Paul was stranded in Athens after being driven out of Berea, he didn’t waste any time. Paul noticed the Athenians were always looking for something new to believe in, and he took advantage of their nature to spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The Greek pantheon included a dozen Olympian gods and many more besides, so the city was full of idols to all of them. In one temple he noticed an shrine dedicated to “an unknown god” just in case the worshipers had missed a deity. Paul told the Athenians this unknown god was the god of Israel, who had made the world and everything in it.

Constructing an idol to an unknown God may seem opportunistic or pragmatic, but there is a certain element of humility in it. Allowing for an unknown God was admitting “there is more to the nature of divinity than we know.” Despite all our talk about the mystery of God, many Christians are content to behave as if God is completely known to us. Our idols are creeds and books, doctrine and dogma. How often have we used them to justify the worship of a false god – a god who condones inequality and injustice, corruption and bigotry; a god who values what and who we value, and hates what and who we hate? A god we have created in our own image.

Jesus remains a constant source of surprise about the nature of God. Over and over he taught us that defining and limiting God – even with the most righteous intentions – reduces us to worshiping a cold, dead idol with no spark of love or mercy. By using parables rather than directives, he showed us God is more knowable through question and mystery than through rigid rule books. We aren’t free to define God however we want, but we are free from having God defined for us by people pretending to have all the answers. Admitting ignorance is sometimes a giant leap toward wisdom. Genesis tells us God spoke the world into existence; Christ’s incarnation transformed that monologue into an ongoing conversation.

Comfort: You don’t have to have all the answers.

Challenge: Nobody has all the answers.

Prayer: God of creation, I seek to follow Jesus Christ to truth and love. Correct my path when I am in error, and keep my heart humble. Amen.

Discussion: What is the difference between seeking truth, and simple rebelliousness?

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Invitation: Cardinals


This morning I was sitting on the front porch watching the rain. A cardinal who regularly makes his rounds among the trees and shrubbery of our yard – and occasionally leaves evidence that he visits the porch – was flitting about to find dry shelter. Several times he landed on the porch railing, which was fairly well protected, but was not content to stay. I wanted to take a picture of him with my phone, but he never stayed put long enough or got close enough for a good shot. I tried to be still, to make the dry porch seem less threatening, but once the camera was out, he kept his distance. After I finished my coffee I went inside, and hoped he felt safe to land on the porch.

My eagerness to intrude on his life felt threatening to Mr. Cardinal. Some people are like that, too. An extrovert like me assumes I’m making friendly overtures when I engage someone in conversation or repeatedly remind them how welcome they are. A more introverted person may in fact find these behaviors quite off-putting. When a new person shows up at church, it might seem natural to find out whether they are interested in the choir or fellowship groups or Bible studies; we want them to stay and so many of the popular church-growing guides says groups are the way to do it. It might seem like a gesture of welcome to tell the entire congregation to be sure to welcome our guest. All of this is well intentioned.

But it isn’t necessarily what everyone needs from church. My front porch feels safe and dry to me, but Mr. Cardinal is wired to avoid attention (except from a potential Mrs. Cardinal). If I’m there waving him in, no matter how much he’d like to be dry, he’s never going to land. If my concern is truly for Mr. Cardinal’s well-being, the best way to invite him into a safe space is to first understand what it is makes that space feel safe for him. Now with Mr. Cardinal that means abandoning my porch, but that’s not feasible for church. We can, however, let visitors and new arrivals set the tone for their own type of participation. When we meet someone new, instead of assuming they will love the things we love and demonstrate their feelings the way we do, we can observe what draws them in and what prompts an anxious flutter. Some people want to chirp in the choir, and some people want to nest in the audience.

The church is big enough to accommodate all kinds of personalities. The trick of community is to find the commonality that binds us, and allow people to support it and be supported by it in ways that make sense to them. In the Christian church, the communion table is one of those commonalities. Some of us like to write long-winded invitations. Some of like to use the time for contemplation. Some of us like to bake the bread. We do all these things to honor and serve Jesus Christ, the one who truly invites us to the table. Let us follow his lead, and build relationships that let us meet people where they are, instead of where we think they should be. That is how we let people know the table is safe for all.

May the peace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all.



Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 56; 149, Numbers 20:14-29, Romans 6:1-11, Matthew 21:1-11

Today’s passage from Matthew is traditionally read during the Palm Sunday passion narrative. Jesus sends a couple disciples ahead to find a donkey and a colt so he can ride them into Jerusalem. A crowd gathers and lays cloaks and branches on the road as they praise his arrival with “Hosanna!” The colt and the donkey are rich with symbolism and meaning, but today let’s think about what it means to hear this story outside the Lenten and Easter season.

As Jesus arrived, word spread. Without social media, television, or cameras, word of mouth quickly drew great numbers – enough people to put the literal fear of God into local religious and civil authorities. A couple thousand years later, this is still true. When Christ is present in our communities, we see and hear about that presence in the testimony of changed lives. Sometimes, maybe unbeknownst to us, we are the ones testifying. When people hear our individual and collective stories, who responds with “Hosanna!” and who trembles? Throughout history, Christ has been on the side of the marginalized and downtrodden. If our lives causes the poor and the outcast to be afraid, and the powers-that-be to celebrate, it may be time to seriously re-calibrate our outlook and message.

Then there’s the other side of the coin. Most days we’re in the crowd minding our own business. When Jesus shows up are we more likely to recognize him in a polished preacher who could sell sand in a desert, a person wearing rags and living in a car, or someone who looks like they are from our own neighborhood? It’s a trick question, because it’s the message, not the style of messenger, that counts; any person we meet could be spreading the Word; we need to be open to hearing it.

We should be prepared to greet Christ not just yearly, but daily. The cloaks we lay before him are woven from lives of service; the branches grown from seeds of neighborly love. Though that first road led to the cross, we now follow him down the road to new life.

Comfort: Every day presents a chance to be renewed through Christ.

Challenge: Christ often arrives in unexpected ways, sometimes ways we find difficult to accept.

Prayer: God of New Life, thank you for the life, sacrifice, and resurrection of Christ Jesus. May my life be a worthy tribute to lay at his feet. Amen.

Discussion: Where have you unexpectedly discovered Christ?

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Entrance Exams


Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 19; 150, Numbers 14:26-45, Acts 15:1-12, Luke 12:49-56

A 2012 U.S. News and World Report study claimed one out of three American citizens tested could not pass the civics portion of the immigration naturalization test. Rather than indict our educational system, but let’s consider what it says about our attitudes toward membership. Many exclusive groups, such as nations or religions, accept people born inside the group into full membership. Outsiders who wish to immigrate or convert must usually undergo education, testing and other entrance requirements. The different standards point to an underlying assumption that being born into a group imparts an essential understanding of the group’s culture. This study would indicate otherwise. Is it possible that one reason we construct “entrance exams” is to reassure ourselves of the superiority of our own group?

When some people in Antioch began saying Gentiles could only be saved if they were “circumcised according to the custom of Moses,” Paul and Barnabas strongly disagreed. Peter agreed and asked the gathered apostles why they would put God to the test “by placing on the neck of the disciples a yoke that neither our ancestors nor we were able to bear?” In other words, if the Jewish people couldn’t save themselves with the law, Gentiles shouldn’t be expected to either. Does it sound a little like the type of entrance exam that doesn’t create good members, so much as hype the superiority of the group?

Of course immigration requires regulation, and conversion at least some minimal commitment to the standards of a religion: a person who believes Jesus never existed would make a poor Disciple of Christ. However, we must be careful we don’t exclude people based on matters of preference. Today we don’t ask each other whether we’ve been circumcised, but we may ask whether someone’s baptism was full-immersion or not, or which prayer someone said to become saved, or any number of questions regarding local and denominational customs. It seems part of the human experience that we must learn again and again that God “has made no distinction between them and us.” As Christians, let us make no distinctions where God has not.

Comfort: In God’s kingdom there is only an “us.”

Challenge: Ask your pastor about the requirements to join your church. Or if you don’t belong to a church, ask a friend about theirs.

Prayer: God of the sun and stars, shine a light on all that unites us.

Discussion: We are all members of some groups by birth, and some by intent. Are they any memberships you struggle with?

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Invitation: Pulse


After last Sunday’s shooting at a gay night club in Orlando, many people in the gay community said the act was not just violence against people, but against a sacred space, a sanctuary. Many other people were offended by this concept, that a secular club for drinking and dancing could in any way be considered sacred. What do we need from sacred spaces? For one thing, we need a place where we can feel safe being our true, vulnerable, emotionally naked selves before God and our community. For many of the people at Pulse that terrible night, church could never be that space. “Hold on,” you might say, “those people chose a sinful lifestyle that alienated them from the church.” I personally wouldn’t agree with you, but my line of thought doesn’t depend on our agreement. Every seat in church is filled with sinners, but few sins have been singled out in the same way. Few “sins” cause entire congregations to shun and shame a person until church is no longer a place of safety, but of emotional violence. Pulse, like many similar clubs, was a place where people felt free of judgment and persecution. A place where people might not hear God loved them, but where they might be able to believe for a few hours that God – that anyone – did not hate them.

Sadly for many of us (gay, straight, or otherwise), church is far too often a place where we do not feel truly safe. Where we can’t be emotionally vulnerable. Where putting on the façade of a good Christian takes precedence over being an actual, flawed, messy human being. You know the type. The type Christ came here to save. Heaven forbid that during the passing of the peace, meant to be a time of reconciliation, we actually offer forgiveness to people who’ve wronged us or peace offerings to those we’ve wronged.

So we say our prayers and sing our hymns in church, but find our sacred spaces elsewhere. In an art studio. In a garage workshop. In the garden. On a mountainside. At the office. Screaming into a pillow. On the open road. At a night club.

No matter where we are, it could be someone’s sacred space, someone’s holy ground.
The communion table is one form of sacred space. All are invited, but some of us may never again believe we’re welcome inside the walls of a church. So maybe invitation is not a matter only of asking someone into our sacred space, but of being willing to enter and share theirs, as Christ shared space and table with sinners of all kinds. Maybe the table extends into all places, and all times, just as our God does. Maybe we should treat every space we encounter as sacred, as a place where the promise of the communion table is unfolding, as a place where we remember Christ forgave even the men who drove nails through his body so we can muster enough grace to say: “God loves you. I love you. We’ll sort the rest out. If you can’t come to the table, may I bring the table to you?”

God loves you. I love you. Let’s gather at the table, wherever it is, while we still can.

May the peace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all.

Open Wide and Say “Awe!”

psalm 104

Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 104; 149, Numbers 13:31-14:25, Romans 3:9-20, Matthew 19:1-12

A sense of awe is a natural reaction to the miracle of creation. Non-theists, especially those involved in the sciences, frequently cite a sense of wonder as central to their spirituality. People of faith, like the author of Psalm 104, attribute the beauty and complexity of the universe to the divine purpose behind it all. People who find time spent in nature helps them feel closer to God are attuned to this sense of wonder. If we spend a lot of time studying scripture and trying to wrap our brains around God, we may find it more difficult – or frivolous – to appreciate unexamined awe. Yet this is a legitimate way of apprehending God. As we seek to deepen our relationship with God, let’s take an occasional break from “head” space to dwell in “heart” space where that sense of awe can reach us best.

Busy people may need to intentionally slow down to notice everyday wonders. Do we ever think of the sky as being stretched out as the tent of God’s dwelling place, or of the winds as God’s messengers? These poetic images do not need to be literal to reveal truth to us. The psalmist finds wonder in springs gushing forth to satisfy every wild animal, in food springing from the earth, in trees and mountains, darkness and light, predator and prey. If we ever have trouble feeling our connection to a sense of wonder, Psalm 104 is an amazing resource for reestablishing it.

Let’s commit to being aware of the sources of awe in our own lives. The diverse beauty of a garden or a wild meadow. The complexity of our own bodies, even when they can no longer serve us well. The grace of hundreds of birds swooping in unison. The power of a storm extending farther than we can comprehend. Awe can inspire and terrify us at the same time. What it cannot be is analyzed, for then it ceases to be awe. Let us simply dwell in the presence of the Lord and for a while let awe crowd out everything else. It blesses a soul.

Comfort: Faith isn’t just about what you can figure out. Maybe it never is.

Challenge: At least once a week, find some time to simply be – t0 be in the presence of God without expectation and open to possibility.

Prayer: God of all creation, thank you for the beauty that surrounds me. Even on the days I can’t see it, maybe especially on those days, humble me with your wonder. Amen.

Discussion: Where or how do you find it easiest to experience God?

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Invitation: Helicopter



We live right across the street from a hospital with a helipad. Several times a week – or maybe several times a day on long summer holiday weekends – we can hear the emergency helicopter landing and taking off. From inside the house it sounds no louder than a leaf blower, but outside the protection of our thick walls, on the front porch or in the yard, the deafening sound is a physical presence pushing against your sense of safety.

Every time I hear the helicopter, I am conflicted. The choppy roar of its rotors means someone has been injured severely. But that sound also means there’s a chance that person can be saved, a chance that didn’t exist before air ambulances were available.

This is not unlike the conflict I feel at the communion table.

The Eucharist exists because we, as individuals and a species, suffer from severe spiritual injuries. It is a weekly reminder that we are broken in ways that need serious attention. It is also a reminder that we can be saved. There was a time, the time before Christ offered to love us into wholeness, when we were offered no hope for such injuries. I’m sad it is necessary but so grateful for its presence. What a bittersweet balance.

Inside the walls of the church, the Words of Institution are more comfort than disturbance: “Before Jesus was given up to death, a death he freely accepted, he gave You thanks…” Outside the walls of the church, these words can seem threatening to the injured. Imagine being hurt so badly you need to be airlifted to a hospital. Imagine the overwhelming sound and chaos and immensity of a helicopter descending onto your broken body. That doesn’t feel like hope – that feels like disaster.

When we invite someone to the table for the first time, we need to understand a lifeline sometimes looks like a noose. Where we appreciate the helicopter because it’s already saved us, they may just hear a confusing, even frightening, noise. We don’t fix that by speaking more loudly (or more frequently, or more insistently). We fix it by offering to ride with them, to hold their hand, and to stay by their side until the fear and pain have passed. Until it sounds like hope.

If you are a frequent guest of the table, extend your hand. If you have never come to the table, please accept that hand and try to believe the fear does not outweigh the promise. Our pilot has only your salvation at heart.

May the peace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with you all. Amen.