Sermons are part of a conversation between the preacher and the congregation.
You can read most of the sermons preached at Faith in the past few years here. This archive is a blog, which is duplicated on Blogger. You may add comments here or in the blog if you wish.
If you would like to see the readings planned for the next few weeks, click here.
Talking to Caeasar
Text: Matthew 22:15-22
One of Martin Luther’s contributions to the discussion of the church and its role in our lives was the insistence that our faith be grounded in the Bible. Sola scriptura, as he put it in Latin. Scripture alone. Meaning that other guides to our faith were secondary, even if useful. When in doubt, turn to the book. He came to this rule of thumb through his own experiences, trying to figure out what he and what the church should do in a time of crisis for both.
It’s a good start. But as you know from your own experience, what scripture says is in detail not always clear. There are lots of reasons for this, good and bad. One of the not so good reasons is that people like to do the job backwards. That is, they know what they want to think and they find passages in scripture that support their own view. These passages are called “proof texts”—verses that prove our own personal points. This is not what Luther meant. But even if we are careful and open to listening to the Bible, we are hearing with modern ears words that were spoken at least 2000 years ago. They speak to us, but they were not spoken to us in particular. Therefore, we might mistake (or ignore) the context in which they were said or written. We do not live in the time of Jesus, for example, and we cannot assume that people who heard him heard as we do. They probably did not. The words do have meaning for us—the Bible has been a bestseller for a long time. But we need to think hard about how to apply what Jesus said to other people, and apply it instead to us and our time. And as Luther would advise us, we need to do that—as he did—in study, prayer, and hearts open to guidance of the Holy Spirit.
Today’s passage from the Gospel of Matthew has long been used a proof text. It has been used to call for or justify the idea—which by now is a modern dogma—of the separation of church and state. But this is not true to its original time, and it is not helpful to us in our current time.
When the Pharisees and the Herodians approached Jesus, Palestine was occupied by Rome. Rome, a foreign empire, had possession of the land and governance of Israel. Though leaving the culture pretty much intact, Rome had installed a vassal king, Herod, and extracted wealth from the land in the form of taxes paid in Roman currency. On the coins it read, Tiberius, divine son of Augustus. The Herodians supported Herod, and argued that the people should pay the taxes. They were the collaborators. The Pharisees argued that to do so violated Jewish law and that people should not pay. They were the resisters.
They came, it says, to entrap Jesus. People interpret this to mean that Jesus was put between a rock and a hard place—forced to commit either sedition or blasphemy, and therefore getting into big trouble. But that is not quite what the passage says. He is not being asked to choose between religion and politics but between two different camps who have adopted two different tactics in the face of foreign occupation. Jesus will not do this. He will not support one or the other.
But he also does not say that some things belong to Caesar and some things belong to God. He does not say we must balance the demands of church and state. The issue is not church or state—in the time of Jesus and for about 1500 years after that, there was no distinction between church and state—the issue was how to respond to the demands of a conquering power. In that sense, this passage does not apply to us at all. Our circumstances are not similar.
It would be a short sermon if that was all there was to it. But there is something in this story in Matthew that catches our thoughts. Jesus’ response—in the traditional version “render onto Caesar those things which are Caesar’s and unto God the things that are God’s”—has mystified and motivated people for a long time. We turn to this story for some guidance about how to behave as faithful people who live in a culture that does not share our faith or our understanding of God’s teachings. Whether that culture is the institution of the church—as it was for Luther—or the state or the secular society.
Until recently, modern Protestant mainline churches in the west—including Lutherans—have considered churches to be separate from but parallel to the secular world. Either withdrawn from or resigned to the goings on in the world. They argued among themselves about whether the church was within, against, or part of the culture. They made the church a place where people could take refuge from culture, think about things of the spirit, and hang around with other Christians. Though that is part of the story, it is not the whole story. (Lutherans sometimes turned to Luther’s notion of two kingdoms. But Luther never argued that the two worlds could be separated this way.)
In this view, when our faithful consciences disagree with the acts of the culture, we have to ponder which way we should turn. People have said about this passage that it is about maintaining dual allegiance to two realms, or that is is about living a balanced life in face of the demands of faith and the demands of the culture, or it is about the hardship in trying to do so.
But Jesus is not saying here that we have a difficult and annoying balancing act between two calls for our allegiance. We only have one allegiance: it is to God. Jesus is not saying “sometimes obey God but sometimes obey Caesar instead.”
Our hope is that someday the world will be the way God intended it to be. Your kingdom come, we pray, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. This is a prayer and a call for this world to be healed from sins and sorrows and to be saved from fear, violence, and greed. To be for all a good world in which to live.
Jesus teaches us in this passage that our job is to make the world of Caesar be the world of God. To live in the world according to our faith. I do not mean that Christians should convert everyone or to teach dogma in schools or to make Sunday the official sabbath. I mean that for those of us who profess to follow Christ, that his teachings be our guide in the whole of our lives. We who are Christians need to ask ourselves when we think about political action and policies not what would Jesus do, but ask instead: What did Jesus teach me to do.
The passage today in Matthew uses taxes as a way to focus on this question about what to do. So let us do the same. And let us start that by talking about food, which was, along with money, a favorite interest of Jesus.
On Friday, the Greater Boston Food Bank held a luncheon for its supporters and agencies—people like Faith Kitchen. Partly the event was to thank everyone for all they have done to feed people. And partly it was a way to remind everyone that there are a lot of hungry people in greater Boston.
In the past year, the Food Bank has fed over 400,000 hungry people. That represents about one out of every nine people in our neighborhoods. Most of those people go to bed at night not knowing where their next meal will come from. The Food Bank in the last year distributed 31 million pounds of food. Agencies like Faith Kitchen know that that is not enough; in the past few months the meals served here at Faith have been packed with people, many of them new to Faith Kitchen.
Even in our area, which has felt the effects of the financial downturn less than other parts of the country, one in nine people do not have enough to eat.
The Food Bank is truly great, but it does not live on donations alone. It relies heavily on a program called the Massachusetts Emergency Food Assistance Program. And money for that comes from the Commonwealth. That is, it comes from taxes. People who are hungry are fed through people’s taxes.
Unlike in the time of Jesus (and unlike in colonial times in this country), taxes are not a way of drawing wealth from one nation to another. Instead taxes are one of the many ways we act together for the common good. (Being law abiding, serving in programs like the military or Americorps, being civic boosters, are some other ways.) We all live together in one nation, and taxes are one of the things that help that work.
The people ask Jesus: Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar? Jesus might have quoted the summary of the law: love God with all your heart and soul and mind and love your neighbor as yourself. In our time, for many things, one way we enact our love for our neighbor is through paying taxes for the benefit of our neighbor. Contributing to the common good is a way we care for our neighbor.
How shall we as people of faith act also as people of a secular culture? Jesus tells us to render onto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s. Our call is not to flee from, or be resigned to, or give in to, Caesar. It is to call Caesar to account, to enlist the culture as a means to enact God’s will and hopes.
I’m not saying that you should love to pay taxes. Or hate them. But that you see them through the lens of your faith. I’m not telling you how to vote. Or what to think politically. What I am saying is this: for Christians, the decisions we make in the world must be considered in the light of our faith. That what we do in the world should reflect our faithful understanding. That when we think of the demands of Caesar, of the world, we think about them in terms of the commands of God.
Song for Living
Text: Psalm 23
Other texts: Isaiah 25:6-9
A man walks down the street. He is pushing a shopping cart. In the cart are bags and empty bottles. The wheels of the cart go clink-clinks when they cross the seams of the sidewalk. The man’s feet hurt. He rests on the steps in someone’s doorway. People look down when they pass, wishing not to see him. Sometimes he sleeps behind a church. In the winter, his hands get cold.
The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want.
A child sits on the curb. He is humming a little tuneless song. The cars rush by in front of him. When the trucks go by with their rattles and groans, the boy’s hair gets blown. Otherwise it is as if he does not notice. In his hands is a disposable camera. He picks it up by the strap, then smashes it against the sidewalk. He smashes it again and again, until the camera opens and little plastic parts spill out. “It’s broken,” he tells his little sister, who is about four years old. Then he calls her a slut.
The Lord is my shepherd. He leads me beside still waters.
Inside, the man’s voice is gravelly with anger, the woman’s voice harsh with fear. They rise and fall like some modern harmony. There is a moment of quiet. There is a sound of doors slamming and silverware spilling. Something breaks. “We are not fighting,” he says, “this is a discussion.” She says, “get out, get out, get out.”
The Lord is my shepherd. He makes me lie down in green pastures.
A woman mourns her brother, and she wishes he were here with her now. She thinks: There was no reason for her brother to get so sick. Her brother was the healthy one. The smart one, too, and handsome. He would have been a rich man, everyone always said.
The Lord is my shepherd. He revives my soul.
The man sits by himself, watching. Time goes way too fast. Maybe it is a blessing. The life he thought was his to have never quite came. He wasn’t very lucky. And truth to tell, he did some stupid things. It’s hard. He’s not the person he thought he was. Not everything he has done has made him proud. People ask him how he’s doing. “No regrets,” he tells them.
The Lord is my shepherd. He leads me along right paths.
We are surrounded by enemies. But they are not the enemies we think. Not terrorists and robbers. Not people eager to harm us. Our lives are a mixture of good and bad, abundance and scarcity, joy and sadness. Things happen to us. We do things, We find that we are not the captains of our own ships.
The twenty-third psalm is about our deepest longing to be saved from sorrows. It is about our profound understanding that we are not made to live in sorrow. We know that we are creatures of sorrow, but we know that we are not made to be that way. There is dreariness and dread in our lives, but we know that God’s expectation for us is otherwise. We know that we walk down dark and scary valleys, but we know that we walk there neither alone nor desperate.
The twenty-third psalm makes us weep to hear it. It is not a sad song, but it reminds us of the sometimes sad songs of individual persons, men, women, and children. People we know and people we are. Songs we sing about us and about the people we love most dearly and the strangers—the mixed-up boy, the freezing man, the mourning sister—whom we see every day. It reminds us of the people we pray for, the things we ask of God. It’s not that we are creatures of sorrow. We are not. We are creatures of joy, beset by sorrows.
The psalm is not a sad song. We weep because it is a song that reminds us of what we wish to be, what might be, what we want most.
To be free from want. Not to have all we want, but to be free from the power of wanting.
To have enough to eat and drink, and which is pleasing and good, perfect as clear cold water.
To see beauty, and to live in, create, and preserve from harm places as beautiful as green pastures.
To have a light heart. To take pleasure in our existence and to make stupid jokes and dance and laugh out loud in inappropriate places. To forgive ourselves and others.
To have inner peace. To be free from apprehension, worry, and regret. To be revived when tired and restored when depleted. To live in trust. To be good.
And finally, to be guided by God’s hand. To be shown the way to these things. To be led along the right paths by God who both is way wiser that we and who forever loves us.
The psalm tells us that though surrounded by enemies, God prepares abundant life for us. Surrounded by enemies, we are served a feast that God lays out for us. The enemies—the things of sorrow—are still there. But we eat, and take pleasure, and laugh. God is with us. And for that, we weep in relief.
The prophet Isaiah speaks to the people of Israel in up until then their darkest hour. He reminds them of the promised life, the life created for them, a life that is possible, that is inevitable. God will wipe away the tears from all people, the prophet says. God will prepare for them a life of satisfying abundance.
A shroud—a veil, a blanket, a fog—a shroud covers them. The shroud is sorrow. They live in sorrow. But that is not their destiny, their nature as creatures of God. God will destroy, the prophet says, the shroud that is cast over all people. These verses move us. They are hard to believe, yet if they do move us, it is because we do believe them. We are drawn to them.
Christians are people of unsentimental hope. We know about the enemies, but we know about God, too. We have heard God’s promises, and in the valley God has walked with us the person of Jesus. God knows about sorrow. And God knows about abundant life. About vitality and beauty and renewal and refreshment and laughter. And God has made it clear which, between sorrow and life, God prefers for us.
In his baptism, Cormac today has been called by name into a community of people—all Christians all over the world, and the particular people here—who turn in hope and trust to the words in Swedish which ring this altar: the Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.”
Freedom of Little
Text: Philippians 3:4b–14
There is a view of the world that elevates the spirit and despises the body. In this view, the spirit or soul or psyche is perfect and pure. The body is imperfect and corrupted. The spirit is good in essence, and the body is bad in essence. There is nothing good about physical creation. In this view, salvation is a process of leaving the dirty body behind and letting the clean soul ascend. The world is rubbish and salvation is an escape from it.
This idea comes from gnosticism, a philosophy common at the time of Jesus. Though gnosticism was condemned by the early church as a heresy, the notion continued and continues to run strong in people’s view of the moral universe. This view is not, however, something that Jesus subscribed to or taught. Jesus was a healer of bodies, and a lover of good food and wine and interesting company. Jesus was a person who did people sorts of things and, it seems, liked the things that people ordinarily did.
And it was not the view of Martin Luther, who also liked to eat and schmooze. Luther was an earthy person, passionate and a little vulgar.
The world was created good, it says in Genesis. And God loved the world, it says in the Gospel of John. Our bodies are created by God. God feeds and clothes us and the rest of God’s creatures. God is generous to creation, and God promises an abundant life in this world. The world is full of good stuff.
You might think, on hearing today’s readings from Paul’s letter to the church at Philippi, that Paul would disagree. He talks about rubbish and leaving all this behind. And elsewhere he seems to condemn what he calls the “flesh.” Paul does have an issue in this passage, but it is certainly not about how the world is sour and the soul sweet.
We cannot deny that things of this world—stuff—can be a problem. And by stuff, I mean both material stuff and intangible stuff. Stuff that we carry around with us. Stuff we store away. Stuff we fret about. All the things to which we are so attached. Some of that stuff is material. Material goods. And some not. On Paul’s list are things of success and birth. Status, class, ethnic origin, positions of authority and responsibility, titles, reputation. It’s things and things associated with things.
Stuff can burden us. We spend thought and energy getting it, worrying about it, maintaining it, cultivating it, storing it, and eventually discarding it. It can define us. Paul is the Pharisee, the Benjaminite, the zealous persecutor. We are known by the things we have and the accomplishments we’ve achieved. And it can lie about us, making it appear that what we have—or equally what we do not—is who we are. We are not what we have or do not have or what we have succeeded or failed at. Things steal us, they steal who we are.
I don’t want to be crabby about this, because Paul is not crabby about it. He is not talking about virtue. He is talking about freedom. The problem is not stuff itself. Some of which, after all, is essential. And much of which is good, giving us pleasure and graceful appreciation. Paul’s complaint is not with stuff itself, not with the things of the flesh themselves, but with their hold on us. Which comes from our hold on them, and on our inability and unwillingness to let them go, unable and unwilling to consider them as peripheral, rather than foundational to our lives.
When Paul speaks about regarding all he had as rubbish, he says more literally that he reckons all those things as being dreck. He is talking about how he accounts for this stuff, as an accountant might record assets in a book. It goes in the “this is not critical to me” column. What he has lost, as he says, is how important these things were to him. They used to be in the “totally important to me” column. But though they still may be good and sweet and fine and beautiful, they no longer determine how he sees himself or his life or his work. The are accounted as having very little to do with him.
This passage in Philippians is a story. A story of about Paul himself. It is a salvation story. Paul comes from a culture—a Pharisee, tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew it says—that itself is defined by a salvation story. The story is the story of the Exodus, of a people freed from slavery. A people transformed from being slaves in Egypt to being partners with God and a light to the world. A people whose expectations were radically altered by God.
The story of Paul in this passage in Philippians, like the story of the Exodus, is the story of amazing grace. I once was lost but now I’m found. It is not that he repudiates the value—positive or negative—of what he had done before, or the pleasure he took in it, or even the sorrow he had over it. It is that he is now in a new story. Forgetting what lies behind, he says, and straining for what lies ahead. His motives are different, the way he sees the world is different, the climax of the story as he can imagine it is different.
The story is not over when Paul writes to the church at Philippi. He is in the middle of it, as he says. Transformations almost never come all at once. Even for Paul, who was struck blind on the road to Damascus and heard Christ’s voice—even that event was just the beginning of something new. He was changed by the help and guidance of others and by his own experiences after that sudden event. What is calling Paul forward now is different. No longer a closet full of tangible and intangible property, but the call of Jesus.
Paul does not demand the Philippians make the same change as he did. But he does invite them to. We don’t have to live our same old stories. They do not have to control us. It is possible to live in a new way, it is possible for the story to have a different ending than we thought.
Paul’s experience—the way he talks about it—is the experience of one who was held captive but now is released. By telling this story, he invites us to have the same experience. To change what we reckon is good, important, and compelling in our lives. To experience the freedom of a Christian. To be free.
Text: Philippians 2:1–13
Other texts: Ezekiel 18:1–4, 25–2; Matthew 21:23–32
There are two brothers on the cover of today’s bulletin. You know from the Gospel reading that one is the good brother and one is the bad brother. You can tell who is the good brother. He is the industrious one carrying the shovel. The bad brother is sneaking out to the left of the page to escape. Or maybe I have it backwards. Maybe it is the other way around. The bad brother is all dressed up like he is going to work in the vineyard as his father asked him to, but as soon as he gets out of view he will put the shovel down and sit under a tree. Or just hold on to the handle, looking good, while he chats with his buddies. The good brother does not care how he is dressed. He does not put on airs; he just goes to work. I guess there is no way to know, really, who is good and who is not.
Lutherans are fond of saying the we are both saints [not the canonized kind] and sinners at the same time. This is not because humans are wishy-washy. Being complicated in this way is the nature of humans. Sometimes we do good, sometimes not. Hooray when we do, too bad when we do not. Sometimes good comes because of what we do, sometimes in spite of it. And bad things in a similar way.
But even if we are both saints and sinners, and even though the good that comes sometimes seems to come from God’s hand and not ours—all that does not mean that being saintly or sinful are the same thing. They are not equal. Of the two, being a saint is better.
In Ezekiel—the first reading today—the people quote a proverb (not an official proverb, not from the Book of Proverbs, just a saying). The proverb says that the parents’ sins (the sour grapes) are visited on the children (setting their teeth on edge). God says through the prophet that God does not want to hear this kind of talk anymore. It is true that we feel the effects of the actions taken by our parents and their parents and so forth. And it is also true that what we do will affect our children and grandchildren. But it is not true, according to this passage, that we are victims of a kind of historical reductionism: that our past determines our present, or that our present determines the future. That we are just bits of life carried downstream by the flow of events. Instead, what we do matters. For better or worse, it makes a difference what we do. Better, once again, to be a saint.
This is not to say that the past does not matter. It might seem that the prophet is describing a kind of death-bed conversion here. When the righteous turn away from righteousness, they die. And when the wicked turn away from wickedness, they live. Repenting—which means to turn—does change things. But it does not wipe out either the effects or the memories of past actions. It does change the present. A life of evil is not rendered good by a change of heart, but the change of heart does make things better. In the present. That is, this is not about judging someone’s moral net worth. It is about what kind of person he or she wants to be, or is, at the moment. It is a better life, a fuller life, to be righteous. It is a worse life, a deadly kind of way of living, to be evil. Changing what you believe and changing what you do changes who you are. Being good is good for you and the world. Be a saint. Everyone will benefit.
If we have a change of heart, what should our new heart be? Presumably, we would like saintly hearts. If so, the Apostle Paul, who is never shy about giving us his opinion, tells us exactly what we must do. Here is his list: 1. Do nothing from selfish ambition and conceit. 2. Regard others as better than yourselves. 3. Look first to the interests of others rather than your own, and 4. Be of the same mind as Jesus. In summary. be humble. Have a humble heart.
It is hard to imagine in the world, with all the striving and grabbing and proclaiming going on, that being humble is high on most people’s list of goals. Rather, being ambitious and self-interested—enlightened or not—is. Being so is our culture’s creed. The path of humility is not one most of us wish to take. We do not value humility, at least in ourselves.
But we are followers of Jesus. Paul reminds us of that and connects what we do to what Jesus did. He quotes a very old hymn about Jesus. Jesus emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, and humbled himself. That is not to say that Jesus was timid or diffident. He was passionate, energetic and courageous. It seems like God is hoping for in us, as followers of Jesus, a combination of energy and humility.
When the hymn talks of Jesus’ emptying himself, it possible to hear that as: Jesus strives mightily against his godly nature, but remains true to his human one. But God is a person who, in our experience, does things for us, with us in mind. God does not prefer to strut around saying how great God is. God creates the good world and feeds us in good season. God so loved the world that God came as Jesus. The God of the Bible is overwhelmingly a generous God. Jesus, the human embodiment of the nature of God, is naturally inclined to empty himself, rather than, as Paul says, to exploit his position.
Number four on Paul’s list—be of the same mind as Jesus—could be translated one of two ways. It could mean: have the same mind as Jesus. That is, be like Jesus is. Or, it could mean: let the same mind be in you that you have in Jesus. That is, you are already as Jesus is; go with it. Let the Jesus-mind that is in you be the boss of you. Then being a saint is not a struggle against your nature, but an embracing of your nature. A letting go of some other stuff in you that is keeping you from the energetic humility of Jesus.
Our joy is complete in others, as Paul says. We are in this together, and we know in our hearts that that is true. It hurts to see others suffer. It lessens us, makes us individually incomplete. That is because of the Jesus-nature in us, the image of God in which we are made. We become complete when we are overcome by others’ needs, pain, hope, and desire.
The problem with the two brothers in the parable is not that one worked and the other did not. And the problem is not that they did not do what they said they would. The one brother worked when he said he would not, and the parable clearly favors him. The problem was that other brother was chattering away, making claims that he had no intention of fulfilling. Getting admiration for saying the right thing, but not intending to do it. He was posturing.
He is like those who talk about compassion, but are mean spirited. Who talk courage but who have no nerve. Talk generosity but are miserly. Talk concerned but can’t be bothered. [It seems we are hearing a lot of talk like that these days.]
If you are trying to empty yourself, you can not at the same time be full of yourself. You can not be humble if the thing you are most concerned about is yourself. You cannot hear the voices of others calling to you if you delight so in the sound of your own voice.
When we prosper while others are suffering, we are not prospering. We are not joyful. We are not complete. We are not the Christ in us.
The priests ask Jesus about his authority. As Christians, we claim that Christ is authoritative. David Brooke wrote the other day that a competitive society like ours “requires a set of social instructions that restrain naked self-interest and shortsighted greed.” If we take Jesus as our authority, then we have those instructions.
Be humble. Look not to your own interests. Do nothing from selfish ambition. Regard others as better than you. Be overcome by the call of others. Listen to God and God’s children. For as Paul writes, it is God who is at work in you.
Text: Jonah 3:10–4:11 and Matthew 20:1–16
It is not hard to think that the dark force of anger has taken over the heart of the world, driving out compassion as thoroughly as it did from the heart of Jonah.
As often, the first reading and the Gospel reading are related. Today they are stories of angry people. Angry for different reasons. Angry at God, at other people, at God’s mercy for those other people. In one story, the story of Jonah, the angry person is a prophet and he talks to God. In the other story, the parable of the workers in the field, the angry people talk to a property owner, whom some think stands for God. Each story ends with a question from God.
Jonah was a reluctant prophet, as most prophets are in the Bible. God called him for a mission. The mission was to warn the people of Nineveh that God was planning to destroy the city and the people in it. That’s because Nineveh was evidently a pretty rotten place, brutal and wicked. But Jonah tried to run away from God. He sailed off, but soon was swallowed up by a big fish (which we all think of as a whale). After three days of this, the whale vomited him up (Jonah evidently disagreed with the whale), and Jonah went to Nineveh, where he told everyone that they had forty days to clean up their act, or else.
Which they did. They believed Jonah. They took off their everyday outfits and put on sackcloth, they fasted, and they prayed. They “gave up their evil ways and their violence,” the story says, and said to one another, “Who knows? God may yet relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that we will not perish.” They did these things, and God did relent. God changed God’s mind. Which brings the story up to the passage for today.
You might think Jonah would be thrilled at his success. His preaching saved 120,000 people (and many animals) from suffering and death. But he was not pleased. He was displeased, it says, and he became angry. The word means he burned hot with anger. “I knew it!” he says to God. “Didn’t I say so when you first tagged me for prophecy.” I knew four things about you: 1. you, God, were a person of grace and mercy, 2. you were slow to anger, 3. you were steadfast and patient in your love, and 4. you were eager to not punish people.
Basically, God was as unlike Jonah as you could get. God was slow to anger, and Jonah was quick to anger. God favored mercy, and Jonah favored vengeance. Jonah was committed to punishment and God was committed to finding ways not to punish. Jonah thinks God is just wrong about all this. He knew what God was like—merciful and all that—and he didn’t like it.
Jonah felt that a rule was a rule. If you are brutal and wicked, you have to pay. A last minute apology should not get you off the hook. Repentance should not get you off the hook. Nothing should get you off the hook, including divine compassion. You do a bad thing, you get punished. That is only fitting and fair. (Jonah does not point out that God let him, Jonah, off the hook when he fled and ended up in the whale’s belly.) The text does not say anything about how we all do bad things once in a while, though that would be a good question to ask Jonah.
What God does ask Jonah is: “Jonah, should I not be concerned about Nineveh?” That is the question. “Should I not have compassion for Nineveh?” God does not deny that Nineveh was bad. God does not deny that maybe they deserved to be punished. God does not deny that they violated the rules, the law, the orderly operation of things. What God says is that, in spite of all that, God prefers not to punish. God has a preference for compassion. Is it good for you to be so angry, Jonah? God asks. Should I not be concerned about Nineveh? God asks. And with that question the story and the book of Jonah ends.
A rich man, a landowner, hires some day laborers to work in his vineyard. This story in Matthew is a parable, usually interpreted as a allegory. The landowner hires five groups of people over the course of the day. He agrees on a wage for the first group, but is a little vague about what he’ll pay the others. At the end of the day, when they line up to get what is owed them, the landowner pays all workers the same amount. The ones who worked all day get the same as the ones who worked just an hour.
The ones hired first were angry at the rich man. Presumably they wished he had paid them more—unlikely as they had already made the deal—or paid the others less. But all the workers were poor. They all needed work. None of them was getting paid much. They were all in the same boat. One reason the people are angry is that they are powerless and the rich man is powerful.
But the other reason, the reason they state, is that the landowner has made them—the last hired—equal to us—the first hired. He has not made the last first, but has made the first and the last be the same. They is no distinction between them in his eyes. He treats them equally poorly or well.
Jesus is not trying to tell us, I suspect, that God is arbitrary and high-handed. But that, like the landowner, God has a preference for grace. “Are you envious,” the man asks, because I am good?” And with that question, the parable ends.
Rules—about crime and punishment, about fair pay for work, about agreements—serve people because they try to make things orderly and predictable. Not everything need be negotiated from scratch, some things go without saying, people do not need to be super vigilant about every moment and action. There is a structure to the world in which people move. Jonah’s complaint and the workers’ complaint amount to arguments for good order. They do not like it when God relents (they would say reneges) or is unfairly (as they think) generous.
It is not that order is not good to God. It is that order is not primary. For God, compassion and generosity are. Unconditional grace, as modern Christians would say, is the primary mode of God. Both these stories are examples. Equality and fairness sometimes (even often) align with compassion. But when they do not, compassion prevails.
We are called in our lives of faith to change. God calls us to change, to be different than we are or might be. We are faithful not only to praise God and not only to know God, though those are both fundamental and important. But we look to God to form us to be better, to do good, to change the world if we can for the better. We look to the actions of faith—worship and study and prayer and sacrament—partly to be able to listen to God telling us how. If we believe God to be merciful, slow to anger, persistent and patient in loving, and eager to find reasons not to punish people, then we can lean on that belief to shape our lives and our actions to be the same.
Some people are angry, as Jonah was, that people do not get what they deserve. And they are angry, as the workers were, that people don’t deserve what they get.
We are called to not let anger drive out compassion from the heart of the world. In our angry world, we are called to be voices for compassion instead. In our angry world, we are called to be voices for generosity. God asks: should I not be concerned for Nineveh? Should not God be concerned for all people? And if God is, then are we not also called to be?
Speaking in Concert
Text: Matthew 18:15–20
How does it make you feel to know that if you and someone else agree about anything you ask, God will do it? How does it make you feel to know that if two other people agree, they get the same deal?
Does it console you, knowing that God responds to the prayers of people? Or are you dubious, wondering how well this actually works in practice? Are you amused, thinking that the chance of any two people agreeing on anything substantial is very small? Or are you terrified, knowing the harm that can be done—that has been done, is being done—when humans are given power.
This passage seems to grant us a great power. The power to confer. The power of agreement. And the power to enlist God in our own endeavors. Yet it seems unlikely that Jesus would give us carte blanche, a blank check, to get whatever we ask for, as long as two of us agree. Not only unlikely, but in violation of our understanding of scripture and of human experience.
The story in Matthew starts with two brothers. Our Bible translates this as “another member of the church,” but that is because it wants us to realize that is not just brothers who sin against one another. Sisters do, too. But brothers and sisters are different than church members; they are more closely connected and intimate. This reading is about more than just what to do about a difficult fellow parishioner.
Brothers fight. Siblings fight. People fight with one another. So here’s what Jesus says to do first: talk to each other. Just the two of you. Alone. Sometimes that works. If so, good for you both. But sometimes people don’t listen to one another. Note that the goal here is not agreement but communication. Being attentive to one another. Listening to complaints and fears and hopes. But if he didn’t hear you, it says, bring along some buddies. And finally if he doesn’t listen to them either, then you can bring in the church. And if that does not work … well, we’ll talk about that in a minute.
There is a widening circle of involvement here. From just the two of you at first to the whole community. Fights rarely affect only the two combatants. When parents battle, children suffer. When nations battle, the populace suffers. Violence and anger are corrosive and cancerous conditions that often touch others besides ourselves. Not always, so the first remedy is the least aggressive. But if it is not enough, in the end the community has an obligation to become engaged.
But no matter what, the goal of the process in the passage is not punishment but reconciliation. It is not even redemption—we are not talking here about making people better—but the restoration of relationships. We hope not to shame each other, to embarrass or chastise each other. Not to make people feel bad about what they have done. But instead to bring people back who are lost. Or who we feel have sinned against us. To allow people back who have been cut off, ignored, or condemned, or ridiculed.
This passage in Matthew is sandwiched between the parable of the lost sheep (that’s the story illustrated above the altar) and a story in which Jesus tells Peter that Peter must forgive others 77 times, which means forever (we’ll talk much more about that next week). These are stories of reconciliation. People are lost and then recovered. And not necessarily easily, but through persistence and dedication to the principal of forgiveness. About which Jesus had a lot to say.
Near the end of this passage, after you and your associates and your church have all confronted your brother or sister, when all else has failed to open his or her ears, “let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” Before we think this means that we are being instructed to write this person off, we need to remember that Jesus loved people like that. Earlier in Matthew he is called a friend of sinners and tax collectors. And it is true. He hung around with them and shared meals with them.
With Jesus, there is no end to reconciliation. We work at it until it works. There is no giving up in disgust or dismay. If we have to stay there all night. Or all our lives.
We are not so great at living beyond the fight. We know how to celebrate victory, but we are horrible at living in peace, existing with our neighbors who once were our enemies, and just staying with that. We are not good at what Jesus tried to teach us, which is how to forgive so that we can live beyond the sin against us. Listen to your brother who has sinned against you. And in the end, if that does not work, treat that one as a sinner and a tax collector. Someone you live with.
Jesus tells us that if two agree about anything, God will do it. In the next verse, he tells us that if two (or maybe three) are gathered, Jesus will be there with them. These two verses are not describing two different things. They are parts of the same requirement. If we are gathered and Jesus is there, then we will ask what God can in good conscience do.
The word “agree” in this passage is the basis for the word “symphony.” To agree means to speak together. The power to forgive does not depend on our ability to speak the same words in the same voice. It requires that we speak in concert, led by Christ.
The power of agreement is not a general power. We are not being given the words to some magic incantation. The power is specific. It is the power to forgive (which Matthew in our Bible calls loosing and binding).
It is the power to forgive what is difficult to forgive. It is a power given to us by Jesus to hang in there and forgive what otherwise might be impossible. When we are gathered together, and imagine Jesus standing there with us—can we ever say “OK, I’ve had it. I’ve tried my best. But enough is enough. I am out of here. See you in court. Or on the battle field.” Can we ask God for victory if we do what Jesus does not?
Or can we instead ask God for the power to do what Jesus asks us to do: to persist in forgiveness, and live in peace?