If I Were Preaching, Reflectionary

All Along the Watchtower

Listen to another parable. There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a watchtower. Then he leased it to tenants and went to another country. (Matthew 21:33, NRSV)

How do we know who we are in our current situation? Many of us could reel off a list of our identities, by race or national origin, by age or gender identity or sexual orientation, by height and weight, hair color and eye color, by first concert we attended or favorite baseball team. If a pollster calls, we could answer questions about our level of education or our party affiliation. We might identify by our hobbies or our preferred pets or our favorite ice cream. We have built these identities by some mixture of inheritance and experience. They are what we know. 

When my sons were high school age, we watched the reimagining of Battlestar Galactica, a sci-fi story replete with religious themes. The human characters have a polytheistic faith, and their enemies, the Cylons, are monotheists. The Cylons are also robots, but some of them don’t know it because they are programmed to think they are human, with memories of lives they never lived.

How do we know who we are?

If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. (Philippians 3:4b-7, NRSV)

Paul knew exactly who he was, could identify himself by his heritage, his faithfulness and righteousness, even his zeal. He knew he was superior in all these. We know from looking around at our current situation that people who can claim certain identities of power and privilege operate from a position of advantage over everyone else, due to birth or education or financial position. 

What identity do we claim?

I’m captivated by the watchtower in the parable Jesus tells. Such a tower was a security feature, a way to keep an eye on the vineyard and whoever or whatever might come to threaten it. It’s a sign of care and planning and the resources to do things right. But the workers in the vineyard, entrusted with its care, decide that they don’t want to share its crop with the landlord. They kill his servants; they even kill his son. They can see what is coming, but they cannot see who they have become.

The religious leaders listening to Jesus tell the story supply their own ending. Of course the landlord will kill the faithless servants! Please note that is not what Jesus says. He turns to another metaphor, the rejected stone that becomes the cornerstone. 

There are many ways we can identify ourselves, but the most crucial one is as people of God and followers of Christ. For Paul, that became his primary identify.

More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith. (Philippians 3:8-9)

Jesus warned the religious leaders that they would stumble over the cornerstone, and this is a needed reminder for us. When we take the vineyard into our own hands, when we forget who has given us all that we have and all that we are, we get in our own way and create our own hazards and make our own bad ending. In our current situation, the church feels the pressure from the world to conform, to succeed, to survive. When pandemic and politics occupy us day and night, it may feel like we are all tripping over the stone and at risk of being crushed.  But think of Paul! Think of the way Christ changed his life! 

In Battlestar Galactica, when the sleeper Cylons realize who they are, the music playing is a setting of Bob Dylan’s All Along the Watchtower. It sounds, maybe, like a memory from childhood. Dylan drew on the image of the watchtower in Isaiah. “There must be some way out of here,” the song begins. It’s not too late to see things clearly. It’s not too late to know who we are and whose we are. It’s not too late to write a different ending to the story.

For the Sundays from September 13 through November 1, I will be offering prompts for a sermon series called Current Situation, focused on the gospel and epistle texts and how we might read them in this contentious time, with an emphasis on strengthening our identities as followers of Jesus, our relationships within the church, and our witness to the world. Preachers, you’re welcome to use whatever is helpful to you, and I hope you will share this post with colleagues who might be interested.

If I Were Preaching, Reflectionary, Sermon Series

Current Situation: When We Disagree

Welcome those who are weak in faith, but not for the purpose of quarreling over opinions.

(Romans 14:1, NRSV)

As students return to school, we are accustomed to gearing up church life for the program year. People who have been traveling return home. Study groups and classes begin again. This year we may be starting things in hybrid fashion, like the kids in my local school system, with some mélange of outdoor and online worship, or allowing only small groups to gather in person. Whatever our plans, there is a different kind of pressure to come back together than we may have felt over the summer, and a diminishing of the distractions that occupied people who may disagree with our decisions to return, or not, to more familiar ways of gathering. 

No matter what pastors or church leaders have discerned, or how thoughtfully, it’s likely some in the community will disagree. For those who have worked hard on plans and protocols, the complaints can sting, particularly when they take the form of a veiled threat to stop giving, or a detailed report on how other churches are doing it differently, or a blistering all-caps email. 

How can we be the church when we disagree?

If we look to Paul’s letter to the Romans, we find a warning about “quarreling over opinions.” Whatever you do or eat or observe, he says, do it in honor of and with thanksgiving to God. Among the quarrelsome Romans, some judged their siblings in Christ, and some even despised them. In this contentious season, particularly for those of us in the U.S., where it’s almost too easy to draw a connection between church policies and presumed political stances, we may relate. It’s not just pastors on the receiving end of complaints, and it’s only human to feel disappointed, misunderstood, even betrayed by the mistrust of people we thought we knew well.

It’s important to remember that we are not the first or the only communities of faith to struggle with differences in belief and understanding. We cannot control the opinions of church members and friends, but we can control how we treat them. Paul reminds us that we are all going to be accountable to God. How do we want to be judged in the end? 

When we turn to the gospel, Jesus offers a vivid caution in response to Peter’s question about forgiveness. He offers a parable about debt and a “king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves.” (Matthew 18:23) The familiar and uncomfortable story shows the figure with great power behaving with generosity while the figure with little power seizes as much as he can hold onto, causing harm to one of his fellows. The forgiven person cannot see the irony of his action, or does not care. He is looking out only for his own good.

When children are baptized at my wife’s church, she asks the other children if they will show love to the newly baptized, putting it in terms they understand. “Will you show them where to find the snack table? If you see them fall down in the hallway, will you help them get up again?” These basic principles of care for one another ought to be unforgettable to all of us. We don’t knock each other down to get to the snack table first!

How can we be the church when we disagree – particularly in this current situation? 

I believe we start by trying to see one another’s point of view, then by taking the time to explain why we hold ours. It’s not easy. It’s much easier to dehumanize the person who disagrees with us, to devalue their perspective, or denigrate their intelligence. We have examples of such behavior non-stop on social media, sometimes from people we know well. (Maybe even from ourselves.) We’re called to do better, to show some regard for the humanity of the person who disagrees with us. 

We’re called to remember God’s mercy to us and extend that mercy to others. 

For the Sundays from September 13 through November 1, I will be offering prompts for a sermon series called Current Situation, focused on the gospel and epistle texts and how we might read them in this contentious time, with an emphasis on strengthening our identities as followers of Jesus, our relationships within the church, and our witness to the world. Preachers, you’re welcome to use whatever is helpful to you, and I hope you will share this post with colleagues who might be interested.

If I Were Preaching, Matthew 14:13-21, Reflectionary

On Empty

Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick.

Matthew 14:13-14, NRSV

It’s hard to read this week’s gospel lesson without referring to the preceding verses that set the scene. John, who prepared the way for Jesus, had been murdered as part of a palace plot, beheaded as the prize requested by a young girl at her mother’s instigation. King Herod let it happen because he felt ashamed and embarrassed by his life and the truth John told him about it. This summer I’ve heard many stories about violent losses, not just on the news but from friends I wish I could comfort. Sometimes we can only sit with the trauma of the incomprehensible and allow ourselves to grieve.

Jesus heard this terrible news about a barbaric death, and he needed to get away. Mark’s gospel established the idea of Jesus taking time apart to pray and renew himself, only to be followed by the searching disciples or roused by them from a much-needed nap. Here he tries but is followed not only by his friends but also by crowds of people. I imagine him feeling depleted and shocked, bound to be considering his own mortality. 

Consider the context of the times, in which an oppressive regime wielded control over their lives and threatened their community values. I wonder how many people who followed Jesus that day felt the same way: empty, grieving, even a little desperate, willing to trust a teacher who had come out of nowhere to attract so much attention. 

And I wonder about Jesus, emptied out by shock and sadness, yet moved by compassion to help those who needed what he could give. I think of him, moving through grief to heal others.* I think of him, touching people who needed filling, not just with fish and bread, but with hope. Writing about this passage years ago, I said, “It is the hope we receive when we share the broken bread and the outpoured cup. That tank is never on empty.”

For those of us still worshiping online, or in person but at a distance complicated by safety protocols, finding that hope can be complicated. We are without the common elements and practices that restored us so regularly we may not have realized their sustaining power. We may well identify with the disciples, reporting to Jesus that the crowd is hungry.

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

Jesus said to them, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” They replied, “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.”

Matthew 14:16-17

We have nothing here, they said. How relatable! Pastors and church leaders, businesses and schools systems and families, people with jobs and those without have been looking around for months now to figure out how to manage in untenable circumstances. We have experienced the literal emptiness of grocery store shelves and the existential emptiness of lost plans and experiences.

We feel empty now, but we know what happened next. Jesus made more than enough out of what seemed like nothing. He did not call down bread from heaven like manna in the wilderness. He made more out of what was already available.

If I were preaching this week, I would acknowledge some of the ways we are running on empty. I encourage you – as I am encouraging myself – to name the grief we all feel as part of the story, just as it was part of Jesus’ story. Then turn toward identifying what might fill both us and others. What bread and fish do we have to share? What resources are available in our community of faith that God might multiply?

Jesus had compassion for the people. May we be moved to acts of compassion in his name.

*The Greek in verse 14 indicates a visceral response to the needs of others.

I will be taking time for professional development and vacation in August.
My weekly Reflectionary email (subscribe here) will move to Tuesdays when it returns on September 8, and these blog posts will push later in the week.