Come to the Banquet

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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?

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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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Conviction

 

Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 54, 146, Numbers 22:21-38, Romans 7:1-12, Matthew 21:23-32

Does a vision without a voice have any value? In the pre-civil rights era, many preachers in white churches personally believed in desegregation, but were reluctant to say so from the pulpit. They feared alienating their congregations and losing members. Not many years ago, during a panel discussion on whether to ordain gay clergy, several pastors said they personally supported it, but that taking a stand on it would drive their congregations to either fire them or leave the denomination. One pastor had the courage to say: “Let them.” Personal convictions, especially regarding matters of justice, mean nothing if we remain silent about them

The difference between a preacher and a prophet is often their willingness to (pardon the language) piss people off. A preacher is beholden to an audience; a prophet is beholden only to God and conscience. Telling people what they want to hear in order to remain in power is the job of politicians, not clergy.

When the chief priests and elders asked Jesus by what authority he preached, he countered by asking them: “Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” They dithered among themselves, trying to determine which answer would cause the fewest problems: if they said “from heaven” they would have to admit they’d been hypocrites, but if they said “from man” the people who followed John might turn on them in anger. At no point in the conversation does it seem they asked themselves: “What do we believe is the truth?” They answered, “We do not know.”

No one can truly lead people they fear to displease. When our pastors and priests are willing to tell us something we won’t like – something that may even anger us – we are not obligated to agree with them, but it is an indicator of their integrity. And when we are called upon to lead, we must not equivocate, but instead be clear in our words and intentions. If we wait to take a stand until most of the danger of doing so has passed, we have done nothing at all.

Comfort: You can’t make everyone happy, so don’t try.

Challenge: If the just opinion is unpopular, speak it anyway.

Prayer: God of Justice, give me courage to serve you boldly. Amen.

Discussion: When do you regret not speaking up?

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Hard Choices

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 57; 145, Numbers 22:1-21, Romans 6:12-23, Matthew 21:12-22


According to the Gospel of Matthew, the first thing Jesus did after his triumphant entry into Jerusalem was drive merchants and customers out of the temple, and turn over the tables of the money changers. Matthew tells this story quickly and makes it clear Jesus is upset because “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer’; but you are making it a den of robbers.” Once the temple was cleared, blind and lame people came to Jesus there, and he healed them.

Notice that Jesus didn’t kick out just the sellers, but also the buyers. The sellers and money changers may have been exploiting religious pilgrims, but the buyers were also participating in the corruption of the temple. Surely many of the customers, if asked, would have said they had no choice; without offerings they could not enter the temple. But when their practices finally caught up with them, they were driven from the temple anyway.

Often when we say we don’t have a choice, what we really mean is we don’t have an attractive choice. “If I say something about this unethical practice, I’ll lose my job.” That’s a choice. “I know this business treats its employees more fairly, but their prices are too high so I shop elsewhere.” Also a choice. “I know this song-sharing site is illegal, but money is tight right now.” Choice (and theft). Principles are  not cheap. They can cost us money, respect, and friendships. If we aren’t willing to risk these things, we don’t have principles, we have preferences – and not even strong ones. When a system is corrupt or unjust, we have the choice to opt out, even if it causes us inconvenience or harm. Jesus opted out all the way to the cross.

It’s never too late to start behaving more ethically. We might need to jump-start that change with a purging of our inner temple, a ruthless examination of our own participation in evils small and large. Clearing them out makes room for the healing spirit of God. There is nothing more valuable in the world.

Comfort: You will always have a choice.

Challenge: You won’t always like the choices you have.

Prayer: God of wisdom, grant me the discernment to make good choices, and the courage to follow through on them. Amen.

Discussion: Have you ever felt like you didn’t have a choice? Was that really the case?

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The Unknown God

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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

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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.

Hosanna!

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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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The Promise of History

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 130; 148, Numbers 20:1-13, Romans 5:12-21, Matthew 20:29-34


Despite leading the Israelites through the desert for forty years, Moses was forbidden by God to enter the Promised Land. At Meribah the people quarreled with Moses because they lacked sufficient food and water. The Lord commanded Moses to speak to a rock, and waters would gush forth. Once before God had produced waters from this rock and had instructed Moses to strike it. This time, instead of speaking, Moses struck the rock with his staff twice, and seemingly took credit for the miracle.

Some people believe this direct disobedience caused God’s rebuke, though all things considered this seems like a pretty minor infraction. God is entitled to do whatever He wants, but He is not petty. Thirty-eight years earlier the Israelites had balked at God’s orders to enter the Promised Land, and instead sent spies ahead to make sure it was worth the effort. In His anger God decreed none of the current generation – including Moses – would enter the Promised Land. Their children would see it after their deaths.

Our sense of history can be short. When we experience a painful event – a revolution, a shooting, a divorce, a riot – we tend to look to recent circumstances to explain it. We find comfort in assigning blame to the easiest – and usually closest – targets, but we frequently do so hastily, lazily, and mistakenly. The roots of our troubles often run deep in time: generational poverty, unredressed discrimination, legacies of domestic abuse, complicated political histories, etc. Understanding the world is difficult work, but willful ignorance leads to yet more difficulty. Even if we can’t solve these problems in our lifetimes, we should reject quick-fixes and easy answers and provide thoughtful, faithful leadership to deliver the next generation into the Promised Land.

Comfort: The world is a complicated place. You don’t have to form quick opinions about it.

Challenge: Few answers are both easy and correct. Don’t settle.

Prayer: Eternal God, grant me wisdom and patience to be a steady, healing presence in a sometimes thoughtless, broken world. Amen.

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Ask? Away!

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 36; 147:12-20, Numbers 17:1-11, Romans 5:1-11, Matthew 20:17-28


James and John were brothers and apostles. One day their mother asked Jesus: might her sons sit at his left and right hands in heaven? Jesus said the favor their mother asked was beyond his power to grant. The other ten apostles were outraged when they learned of the request, but Jesus assured them that in God’s kingdom, leaders were not masters but servants. They were upset not that the favor had been granted, but that it was asked.

A church that was active in resettling refugees, particularly people fleeing the violence of the Congo with nothing but the clothes on their backs, sometimes posted lists of needed household items. One woman – who was not ungenerous and frequently delivered baskets of groceries to the food pantry – would look at the lists and mutter, “Always looking for a hand out.”

We get offended when people ask for things the “wrong” way. One of the first lessons learned on missions trips is what we are prepared to give may not be what people need. Someone who arrives with the skills to replace a damaged roof can be taken aback when instead they they are asked to scrub floors. We can talk a good game about being servants, but unless we are willing to surrender control and serve under someone else’s terms, it’s just talk.

Most adults don’t like to ask for things because we fear being characterized as weak or lazy. We resent what people ask of us when they are things we are ashamed to ask for ourselves. John and James were devoted. Refugees are in need. Hurricane survivors are perfectly capable of prioritizing. To be able to ask, to lovingly consider what is asked … these are signs of servant leadership.

Comfort: It’s OK to ask for what you need.

Challenge: Watch this TED Talk on the Art of Asking by Amanda Palmer. It’s been criticized for being class- and context-blind, but pay careful attention to your own reactions.

Prayer: God of generosity, give me the courage to ask for what I need, and the loving heart to respond graciously to the needs of others. Amen.

Discussion: What are you afraid to ask for? Why?

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For Prophet

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 15; 147:1-11, Numbers 16:36-50, Romans 4:13-25, Matthew 20:1-16


Several years ago my boss asked me to implement a survey of our board members and executives. When the due date for responses had passed, and only eight percent of the people had responded, he extended the due date. This happened twice more, and each time I grew increasingly frustrated and felt we were coddling the late respondents. When I asked why we were rewarding bad behavior, my boss explained: “The goal of this project is not to hold people to a schedule. It is to maximize participation so we have the best and most complete result.” His explanation changed my whole perception of the project.

One imagines people felt much the same way after Jesus told the parable of the workers in the vineyard. In that story, the owner of a vineyard hired men at various times of day, from early morning until just before evening. Regardless of when they started, all the men had agreed to work for a denarius, roughly a day’s wages. The men who worked all day cried “unfair!” when the men who worked for an hour got the same pay. The vineyard owner reminded them they’d all been paid what they’d agreed to and it was his money to distribute as he saw fit. The full day’s wages represent the grace of God, which is available to us in full no matter when we receive it. Those who receive it later in the day – or life – receive the same as those who arrive early. The goal of this project is not to hold people to a schedule, but to maximize participation for the best and most complete result.

In a kingdom where the last are first, we need to adjust our concepts of “fair” and “just.” Christ seems less concerned with efficiently doling out wages, than with extravagantly meeting needs. Having that vineyard owner for a boss might chafe our sense of fairness, but the business of the Kingdom is not business. Grace and mercy are not limited currency for us to earn and divide, but infinite light for us to reflect and multiply.

Comfort: We don’t have to keep track of each other’s spiritual debits and credits.

Challenge: We do have to keep track of each other’s needs.

Prayer: God of grace and mercy, teach me to love abundantly and generously. Amen.

Discussion: In what situations does a lack of fairness bother you most?

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