Sunday, October 19, 2008

Sermon for the Twenty-Third Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 24, October 19, 2008

Twenty Third Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 24
Year A
October 19, 2008
Resurrection Lutheran Church
Isaiah 45:1-7 Psalm 96:1-13I Thessalonians 1:1-10 St. Matthew 22:15-22

In the name of the triune God who created us, who loves us, who redeemed us, and who cares for us.

The Gospel today is not about the separation of Church and State. Those questioning Jesus had no interest in these kinds of issues. In fact, such a thing never would have occurred to anyone in first century Israel. What the Gospel is about is hypocrisy. And it is about idolatry.

Have you ever thought about having to pay the very person who oppresses you? Talk about taxation without representation. That is what was happening in Jesus time to the people of Israel. The oppressed were forced to pay the oppressors. And people were divided about how to respond to this great injustice. They were faced with the question of do you support the government no matter how much you might disagree or do you refuse to pay taxes. Different faiths groups in the United States and around the world have chosen different responses to this quandary. It is never an easy answer. And people of good Christian will have disagreed in our nation about these kinds of problems many times.

What is right to do and what is wrong to do in the world as a Christian. That is always a difficult decision. It is not as black and white as some would want to believe. People have struggled with this same question for centuries in different forms. Do you serve a country an in unjust war? Is a war unjust? Do the ends justify the means? Christians come to different conclusions.

But Jesus’ protagonists today didn’t really care about that at all. In today’s story people are just trying to set a trap for Jesus. But as always Jesus avoids the trap laid for him. This is the hypocrisy in the story. Those questioning Jesus don’t really want an answer or even care what it might be. They want to make Jesus look bad and put him down in front of the crowd. They think that his choices boil down to one of two possible options. He will either have to say no, they do not have to pay, and side with the rebels against the authorities. Or he will have to say yes, they need to pay, and side with the appeasers. Either way, it is a no win situation. The Pharisees think they really have him now.

So Jesus asks them to cough up a coin. They produce one, and like all of the roman coins it has a graven image on it. If you remember your Hebrew Scriptures you will recall that the Jewish people are forbidden to have idols and yet Jesus indirectly points out that merely by conforming to the societal need to carry money, they end up carrying idols around in their pockets. Whether they caught on to that fine distinction of Jesus or not I do not know.

After asking them to identify the image on the coin, Jesus gives a pretty simple answer. But hidden in this simple answer is a powerful challenge to all of us as Christians. Giving to Cesar what is Cesar’s and to God what is God may seem like a very simple and easy thing to do. But I do not believe that this is the case.

I fear that we have made money our idol in a very real way. And sadly in a way that is, on the one hand, less obvious and therefore, on the other hand, is more dangerous. This is because like the Pharisees we do not perceive money as a potential idol.

Instead, we see money in very practical terms. It is not our idol we think, it is our servant. It is what makes the economy run well and provides a medium of exchange. We think it saves us from having to haul halibut and salmon around to trade with other people. And all of that is true. But the question we are faced with is how do we live. How do we treat our money. And there is the first catch. Calling it our money. You see, as Christians, we believe that it is not our money. It is God’s money. One of the simplest offertory prayers I know goes like this: “All things come of you Oh, Lord, and of your own have we given you.”

The concept of giving to God what is God's all along really calls us to remember that everything does indeed belong to God. This is not just talking about our tithe. It is talking about our all. It is easy enough for us to acknowledge it with our lips, but it is sometimes much harder to acknowledge it as we live. At least this is what I have discovered in my own life. The earth and all that is in it belongs to God. That includes the air we breath, the food we eat, the home we live in, the time on our calendar, and the money in our bank account. So this simple response of Jesus is not so simple after all. This Gospel calls us to evaluate how we respond to this truth.

In this simple answer Jesus calls us to look at all of our lives in a much different light. We can no longer live with our easy assumptions about what is means to follow Christ. Throughout history the call to follow Christ has meant to be willing to be challenged in our comfortable lives. We are called on to be willing to lay it all down if need be, like Francis of Assisi. That is a hard call that few have been able to follow.

But my concern is that in our present day the cares and concerns of the world all too easily crowd out our responsibilities to God. I think it rather unlikely that any of us here today will be called on to respond as St. Francis did. But we will be challenged to live out in our own lives the fullness of believing that all which we possess is truly God’s possessions.

The question each of us needs to answer for ourselves is: “are we ready?”

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Sermon for the Twenth-Third Sunday after Pentecost, October 12, 2008, Proper 23

Twenty Second Sunday after Pentecost

Proper 23

Year A

October 12, 2008

Resurrection Lutheran Church

Isaiah 25:1-9 Psalm 23:1-6

Philippians 4:1-9 St. Matthew 22:1-14

You hear it said that clothes make the person. That is what clothing lines try to convince us to believe. And to some degree I think they have succeeded. How often have you or I sized up someone based on their outward appearance? Deep down we know that this is not true. We know that the measure of a person is what is on the inside and not what is on the outside. But it is a terribly hard habit to break. So how do we make any sense of the parable in today's Gospel?

And yet at some level clothing does matter. If you show up to a formal wedding in worn out jeans, a ratty t shirt and flip-flops nit would seem to most people to be rather inappropriate. And although as a priest I tend to dress rather formal for Alaska standards for most Episcopal priests, I know that if I wore some things, people would rightly by unhappy with me and my choices.

But all of us are comfortable with our own person style of dress. The invitation from the King required formal dress however. I mean lets face us, most of us have seen royal weddings on TV. We all know what the expectation is as far as dress is concerned. And so even those brought in from the street must have had an understanding of what would be expected at this great feast.

But the idea of comparing this to the kingdom of heaven can be a troubling lesson for people like me who want to see God in an always generous, kind, giving, loving and forgiving sort of way.

The first part of our Gospel story starts out well enough. Those on the "A" list get invited to a fabulous wedding.

Unfortunately the response to the slaves sent out to get the RSVP's was mixed to say the least. I'm mean, whatever happened to "don't shoot the messenger"? I guess that saying was not invented yet. But the bottom line is that for whatever reason, none of the "A" listers came to the wedding. Imagine having a huge wedding celebration and no guests show up. That sort of throws a wet blanket on the entire event for the bride and groom and families. But this king is a take charge sort of guy. So he rounds up a crowd of people, probably from all walks of life to fill up this wedding banquet. People who never in a million years imagined they would be invited suddenly find themselves in the in crowd!

That really describes who each and everyone of us are as Christians. We are part of the out crowd who suddenly finds themselves invited into the in crowd by God. In spite of our failures, our shortcomings and our sins, God invited us in to the wedding banquet. We relive that invitation every time we come together at the Lord’s Table. All who know God are asked to join in a feast which God has prepared fur us. There is not “A” list and other. All are freely on the invitation. This is not church potluck supper where everyone brings something along to contribute to the whole. No at this heavenly feast God has provided everything. And just as Jesus invited everyone be with him and experience the presence of God in their lives, so it is today. God invites everyone.

But as Christians each and every one of us also knows that the response to the invitation of God requires us to comply with God’s dress code, so to speak. Now I know I’m treading in dangerous waters here in Luther’s territory and I am by no means advocating a works based faith. But a reading of the Bible makes it clear that as Christians, there are certain expectations about us. We are supposed to be, with God’s help, working on things like loving your neighbor and striving for justice and peace.

Our course, for me the hardest part of this parable is the person who arrived improperly dressed and then gets kicked out. After all, what in the world did this person really do wrong?

I have read many different commentaries trying to explain the significance of this particular part of the story. I mean you can't really ignore it as much as you, or at least as much as I, might want to. Most commentaries I have read, rightly I think, interpret this person to represent one who does not have faith. It is sort of the same thing as the saying I have heard that “going to church doesn’t make you a Christian any more than going to a garage makes you a car.”

Some commentaries include a helpful explanation it in terms of traditions back in that time where the host would have provided the appropriate clothing and this particular person choose to refuse to accept it. Basically the same point explained in a cultural context to say that, one way or another, the clothing represents our place in Christ where in this case the clothing makes all the difference.

We are invited guests to this banquet as a result of our new life in Christ represented by the wedding garments.

The Christian Scriptures are filled with metaphors of the Christian relationship explained in terms of marriage and weddings.

If there is a place in the Gospel today where I think we should, each one of us, find ourselves, it is in the place of the slaves. The second set of slaves fortunately. Those were the ones sent to go call in those who never expected an invitation. They had the wonderful opportunity of sharing a once in a life time opportunity with people from all walks of life.

This is exactly what God is calling each and everyone of us to do as well. It is not our job to worry about if they will arrive wearing the right clothing so to speak. It is not our job to filter out those who we believe should be invited and those who we believe are not worth, in as sense creating our own personal “A” and “B” listers. God wants us to go out and share this Good News with everyone. It is an invitation we dare not keep to ourselves. In essence the slaves were doing the work of an evangelist and each one of us is called to be an evangelist as well. I know some are sort of intimidated by that job description, thinking it requires special training or particular skills or thinking perhaps that this is what we pay a pastor to do.

Being an evangelist is as simply as asking your friend to join you at church. That is how real and lasting church growth takes place. If you want Resurrection Lutheran Church to grow, it is every member’s responsibility to take this call to evangelism seriously. Study after study shows that people check out churches most often when invited by a friend. So I’m not telling you that you need to knock on doors and make cold calls. Nope, just invite a friend!

As our Celebrate insert so clearly reminds us today, no matter what may be going on in our life, “we rejoice in the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding. With great joy we feast at the table of the Lord, and we go forth to share the wonderful invitation with others hungering and thirsting for the abundant life of God.”

NOTE: I am indebted to the mediation for this day in Forward Day By Day. Unfortunately those mediations are anonymous so I cannot give appropriate credit.