If I Were Preaching, Reflectionary

Out of Tune

Once more Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying … 

Matthew 22:1, NRSV

It’s that dreaded parable. In this week’s gospel lesson, Matthew captures our attention with images of destruction and despair, and leaves us longing for Luke’s not entirely parallel version. This telling feels out of tune with what we want to hear from Jesus.

We may move reflexively to assign roles in the parable as we try to make sense of what makes no sense. Of course, we think, the king is God and the son is Jesus. The death raining down feels like the end of the world, and that may have felt like a familiar image to the original audience for Matthew’s gospel, who were most likely followers of Jesus from a Jewish background, living in diaspora, away from their homeland and spiritual home base of Jerusalem, now destroyed by the armies of Rome. Resettled, they continued to worship together with their fellow Jews. Conflict between those who followed Jesus and those who did not led to a separation. Devastating loss piled onto devastating loss. The images of destruction in the parable painted a picture of violence familiar to them.

But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe, and he said to him, "Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?" (Matthew 22:11-12) 

Scholars say the word “friend” as used in this gospel really isn’t all that friendly. It’s not cajoling, or winsome. It’s more of a “Now, look here, Mister!” Or a “What do you think you’re up to there, Buster?”*

Why is the King picking on Mister Buster? Why would he expect a last-minute guest to have the appropriate garb?

A parable doesn’t always hold up to one-on-one comparisons; it isn’t meant to, and the end of this story is no exception. “Many are called, but few are chosen” bothers us, because we may have heard it used to exclude people, to our minds, unfairly. Alternatively, it may please us and make us smug. Neither is the right response. It refers to an old saying, likely familiar to Matthew’s Jewish Christian audience, which we might read as saying, “God wants everybody at the party, but not everybody wants to come or knows how to behave when they get there.”**

As we get to the last few weeks before the U.S. election and reflect on our current situation, we’re not exactly singing a harmonious tune about COVID or immigration or Black Lives Matter or climate change. I have a meeting scheduled soon with people recently whose point of view felt so anti-Christian when we last met that I have to consciously remind myself to look for what I know is good in them. We’re feeling the tension of disagreement even when we’re not sitting across the aisle or the table from people who take the other side. How would we talk to each other if we could be in the same place physically? Do we know how to behave when we get there?

Sarah Smarsh, author of Heartland, writes in the Guardian about how we talk to people we disagree with in order to win them to our ideas that we need to be “a defiantly open heart who protects and bolsters valid information systems required for people to truly decide for themselves.”

That sounds like an in-tune gospel message to me.

Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you. (Philippians 4:8-9) 

*Carter, Warren. Matthew and the Margins: A Sociopolitical and Religious Reading. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2000, p. 398. Long, Thomas G. Matthew. (Westminster Bible Companion) Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997, p. 247.
**Long, p. 247.

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.


Current Situation: Gospel-Worthy

Only, live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that, whether I come and see you or am absent and hear about you, I will know that you are standing firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel, and are in no way intimidated by your opponents. For them this is evidence of their destruction, but of your salvation. And this is God’s doing.

Philippians 1:27-28, NRSV

Writing to the church at Philippi, Paul assesses the value of discipleship by calling on the young church to be worthy of the gospel. They are engaged in some strife that is never specifically identified, doing the hard work of committing to a faith that is new to them and not acceptable to everyone around them. Paul offers affirmation of their commitment, but he doesn’t sugarcoat it. They have the privilege of believing in Christ, but also of suffering for him. Will they have the endurance required?

Do we? 

It’s been said that when you are accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression. As preachers, if we serve comfortable or privileged or even just majority white congregations, we may be eager to communicate this idea to the people we serve but also worried that a prophetic sermon will shut people down, not open them up. The current polarizing political discourse in the U.S. exacerbates our concerns. We wonder how to explore a difficult truth without causing a reaction that prevents the hearer from understanding it. This week’s gospel lesson offers a way. 

In the parable of the laborers in the vineyard, Jesus tells a story intended to give insight into God’s economy of grace. For God, it doesn’t matter who got to work first, and that sounds wrong to us. We rely on hierarchies. We rely on them in education, in social interactions, in business and professions, any endeavor in which anyone might hope to succeed. We label ourselves and one another, we track success and ability, we assess background and prior activity. We look for the ways we are better than someone else: taller, thinner, faster, smarter, stronger, whiter. It shouldn’t surprise us; we’re all trying to survive in a system that relies on power to run.

But that is not the system Jesus describes, and those are not the values of the heavenly kingdom. Those are earthly kingdom values. 

Through the voice of the landowner, Jesus explains the values of the heavenly kingdom: 

“’Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’

So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” 

Matthew 20:13b-16

Jesus turns our worldly values system upside down, the one in which we pull ourselves up by the bootstraps and winning is everything. Earthly assessments prevail even in the church, as we give preferred status to the biggest givers, or the largest congregations, or the shiniest production values. 

How can the church be gospel-worthy? 

The laborers hired late in the day had not been offered the opportunity to work. In our current situation, we can look around in our own communities to see who needs work, who is hungry or hungry or without medical care, who may lack the necessary devices or access to WiFi for virtual schooling. We can look at our wider community and world to see who is waiting for the possibilities we take for granted, and who is suffering because our hierarchies do not make their lives, their hopes, and their stories a priority. We can investigate our personal and collective values. Where do we spend our money? What do we consider worth our time? When have we grumbled like the workers who started the day early?

“I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you.”

Matthew 20:14b

We will be gospel-worthy when we choose to do the same.  

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.