I need wisdom today. Do you? Let’s listen in on ancient voices of wisdom that speak through Ecclesiastes 3: 1-17. I’ve only ever preached this text during a funeral, so it's with humility and gratitude that I engage these words in the ups and downs of the present- as you and I are just trying to live one day at a time.
There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens: a time to be born and a time to die, a time to plant and a time to uproot, a time to kill and a time to heal, a time to tear down and a time to build, a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance, a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them, a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing, a time to search and a time to give up, a time to keep and a time to throw away, a time to tear and a time to mend, a time to be silent and a time to speak, a time to love and a time to hate, a time for war and a time for peace.
What do workers gain from their toil? I have seen the burden God has laid on the human race. He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end. I know that there is nothing better for people than to be happy and to do good while they live. That each of them may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all their toil—this is the gift of God. I know that everything God does will endure forever; nothing can be added to it and nothing taken from it. God does it so that people will fear him. Whatever is has already been, and what will be has been before; and God will call the past to account. And I saw something else under the sun: In the place of judgment—wickedness was there, in the place of justice—wickedness was there. I said to myself, “God will bring into judgment both the righteous and the wicked, for there will be a time for every activity, a time to judge every deed.”
Let me begin today by saying how grateful I am to be preaching. I have 4 sermons remaining in this current call among you all…and as timidly as I began this past decade of my life, my season of preaching almost weekly, I know I will miss it. The chance to wrestle with an ancient word in hopes of better understanding my current life and how God’s goodness connects with each of your lives. That’s what preaching is for me, uncovering mystery that lies just below the surface, waiting for intention to extract it. But make no mistake, whether or not it’s me or you or anyone else extracting the meaning, it’s always there. Wisdom eternal, that’s the living word of God…and I feel this truth keenly today, as I reflect on ancient wisdom in Ecclesiastes. No matter how many times I revisit this passage, it takes on new meaning because my season of life- and yours- is always in flux.
God has made everything beautiful in its time. God has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end.
For as much as we’d like to think we’re in control of our lives, each of us encounters a season of sheer mystery…sensing the ground shifting under our feet. And I know you personally feel this in some way AND each of you is connected as a church body, a family of faith in transition. I am right here with you, feeling like the future of this church body is very much outside my control.
And yet I trust, without a doubt, that God makes everything beautiful in its time. God sets eternity in our hearts. We may not be able to fathom what God is doing, but we trust that God is present and on the move with us. Just this week- after I worked on parts of this sermon, God’s spirit moved and we are confidently preparing a wonderful plan for a diverse and faithful crew to fill the pulpit this Fall…nothing I could have done on my own- so praise God for beautiful surprises.
It was exactly 6 years ago today (my birthday) that I preached my first official sermon here as your pastor. I didn’t know at the time how long I’d be here, I only knew to trust that this was a good fit for us- church and pastor starting something new. And as we reflect on all that God has done among us, because of our faithfulness to one another and faithfulness to God’s call, I am amazed. And grateful, and so very filled with emotion. I know you know this, but it’s worth saying again- our season of life together has been fruitful and wonderful.
In the midst of challenges, we draw together. When faced with personal tragedies, we show up for one another. When given chances to welcome new members, we embrace the change and invite new perspectives. When asked to get a little messy, oh we do that well. Whenever a chance to feed one another arises, no one has EVER gone hungry under this rool. We lovingly transformed our spaces of shared life- the fellowship hall, the kitchen, a new sign, and oh so very soon…a new elevator. We’ve embodied the sacraments in worship, we’ve decorated and adorned our altar, we’ve celebrated so many spiritual milestones and memorials, liturgical seasons, and simple pleasures of being together in an authentic way. We’ve been the hands and feet of Jesus the very best way we know how.
I proclaim in the midst of this season of change, emboldened by the wisdom of the saints and the writers of Ecclesiastes…God indeed makes everything beautiful in its time. And so I offer this promise: no matter who’s in the lead of this faith family, we will continue to be made into the beautiful, eclectic, transforming body of Christ that began long before any of us and will continue long after each of us is gone.
For everything there is a season, a time for every matter under heaven. May you know the love of Christ more deeply than ever during this season in the life of the church. May you show up for one another more deeply than ever. May you ask for what you need and offer what you can more deeply than ever. May you plant and pluck up what has been planted, may you cry and may you laugh. May you scatter stones and gather them, may you mourn and may you laugh. May you continue to embrace the seasonality of life, one day at a time. Always united in one Spirit, one Creator, one Christ. Amen.
In Caesarea there was a man named Cornelius, a centurion of the Italian Cohort, as it was called. 2 He was a devout man who feared God with all his household; he gave alms generously to the people and prayed constantly to God. 3 One afternoon at about three o’clock he had a vision in which he clearly saw an angel of God coming in and saying to him, “Cornelius.” 4 He stared at him in terror and said, “What is it, Lord?” He answered, “Your prayers and your alms have ascended as a memorial before God. 5 Now send men to Joppa for a certain Simon who is called Peter; 6 he is lodging with Simon, a tanner, whose house is by the seaside.” 7 When the angel who spoke to him had left, he called two of his slaves and a devout soldier from the ranks of those who served him, 8 and after telling them everything he sent them to Joppa.
9 About noon the next day, as they were on their journey and approaching the city, Peter went up on the roof to pray. 10 He became hungry and wanted something to eat, and while it was being prepared he fell into a trance. 11 He saw the heaven opened and something like a large sheet coming down, being lowered to the ground by its four corners. 12 In it were all kinds of four-footed creatures and reptiles and birds of the air. 13 Then he heard a voice saying, “Get up, Peter; kill and eat.” 14 But Peter said, “By no means, Lord, for I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean.” 15 The voice said to him again, a second time, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” 16 This happened three times, and the thing was suddenly taken up to heaven.
17 Now while Peter was greatly puzzled about what to make of the vision that he had seen, suddenly the men sent by Cornelius appeared. They were asking for Simon’s house and were standing by the gate. Then Peter began to speak to them: “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, 35 but in every people anyone who fears him and practices righteousness is acceptable to him.
I’m struck by how clearly Cornelius saw his vision. That’s not really how it works most of the time for me, how about you? I spend a lot of time doing this: On the one hand….but on the other hand….it takes TIME to process any change that comes our way. Maybe Cornelius felt this too, he did stare at the angel in terror…yet we also know Cornelius follows the directions of this angel swiftly and with great confidence.
There’s a lot more to tell in this story too- we hear of yet another entirely different vision sent to Peter, a man of different ethnicity than Cornelius, different religious beliefs, different communities…but the same God made their lives intertwine. How did it work? Both men trusted the strange guidance at work in their lives by a mysterious and ever-faithful God.
You’ve heard me say I’ve wrestled a lot with my decision to resign as pastor of this church. I don’t think I can overstate that wrestling- my heart divided between this church and ministry I love and the vision of my family united rather than split into too many directions. The details of our life together on the ranch are not yet firm…yet I travel with confidence that God has something ahead I can’t see yet. My job is to follow the guidance my internal vision clarifies.
As I read this text from Acts, I very much connect with Cornelius. He’s not yet sure what God has in store for him in Joppa…but he takes this leap of faith anyway. Even when I don’t know what God has in store for me yet, I’m taking this leap of faith. And it’s scary. And it’s hard. And it’s good.
I know the grief of when a pastor ends a ministry within a church is strong- both for the community and for me, your pastor. Yet I keep coming back to the same promises of our faith that have guided us these wonderfully rich 6 years together. As much as you have become my people, my church, my faith family…you have always first belonged to God- and so have I. I hope against hope that the time we have spent together has been as faithful and fruitful and life-giving as it has been for me…even as we experience a season of transition…we affirm that God keeps sending us visions. God keeps expanding our imagination of what is possible. God is why we are the body of Christ, and God is why we’ll keep right on being the body of Christ no matter who takes the ministry lead.
You know what happens because both Peter & Cornelius were faithful in responding to strange visions in their lives? The church of Christ changed dramatically, opening its doors to all people (not only the Jews)…laying the groundwork for even you and I to be a part of God’s big love story. All because two faithful people had the courage to embrace something new.
There’s no way for me to say what the future holds for either myself or for this church…but I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that God is somehow, ever so mysteriously at work even now…fashioning something new in your life and mine. Our best attempt at being open to it like Cornelius and Peter is to continue to be people who pray.
In this age-old story of Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem, remember this: the donkey and baby donkey he rides shatters any illusion that Jesus has plans to become a mighty warrior or glamorous king in the ways of the material world. Unlike the Roman Emperor who would surely have ridden in on a powerful war horse or chariot and unlike just about any other powerful leader throughout history, Jesus deliberately maintains his humility.
Because the Kingdom of God--no matter how much we disciples want it to be-- is not glamorous. The Kingdom of God is about sacrifice and humility, a willingness to let go of all pride and earthly glory....accepting the more life-giving option of humble confidence.
When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, 2 saying to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. 3 If anyone says anything to you, just say this, ‘The Lord needs them.’ And he will send them immediately.” 4 This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet:
“Tell the daughter of Zion, Look, your king is coming to you, humble and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” 6 The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; 7 they brought the donkey and the colt and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. 8 A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. 9 The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!”
10 When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?” 11 The crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.” 12 Then Jesus entered the temple and drove out all who were selling and buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves. 13 He said to them, “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer, but you are making it a den of robbers.”
14 The blind and the lame came to him in the temple, and he cured them. 15 But when the chief priests and the scribes saw the amazing things that he did and heard the children crying out in the temple and saying, “Hosanna to the Son of David,” they became angry 16 and said to him, “Do you hear what these are saying?” Jesus said to them, “Yes; have you never read, ‘Out of the mouths of infants and nursing babies you have prepared praise for yourself’?”
17 He left them, went out of the city to Bethany, and spent the night there.
Jesus doesn’t always show up the way we expect as our Messiah; he doesn’t promise to save us from suffering and grief in this lifetime. In fact, he faces the same suffering we do- with one distinction. Jesus our Christ moves into his fate with a kind of confidence born from true humility- something I think we humans weren’t capable of before Jesus came…even now as we have the Holy Spirit to guide us, it's STILL so hard to be both humble and confident, isn’t it?
That’s what I love about the image of Jesus on a donkey- in a nutshell, that’s our Lord. He trusts that God is using him for good, AND he knows it’s a call that asks for a real life of sacrifice. He wastes no time after that ride into town, before he begins cleansing the temple of unjust practices. He’s not trying to please anyone here- he’s trying to usher in a new kind of kingdom, one in which prayer and justice are held in equal measure. So what’s Jesus’ motivation? In short, Jesus understanding his life is simply one part of a much larger story. In this scripture alone, he references fulfilling prophecies THREE times. Jesus says, “Go untie that donkey and her colt and bring them to me.” Why? To fulfill one piece of a grand narrative in which God uses all people and animals to make something good of this earth yet.
Jesus says, “Get out of the temple, my house of prayer, you people taking advantage of widows.” Why? To fulfill another piece of this grand narrative in which God uses all people and events to make something good of this earth yet!
Jesus says, “Let the children sing!” Why? To fulfill an important part of God’s grand narrative, in which infants and nursing babes praise the Lord with joyful noises. God using little ones to make something good of this earth yet!
Three times Jesus references fulfilling a story that began from the moment of Creation and continues on in your life and mine. Knowing his fate at the hand of the Roman officials, Jesus parades into Jerusalem with the kind of humble confidence of someone with faith that God’s love WILL win the day. Even when the stretch of suffering is long. Even when we don’t know how it ends. We trust that God is using US to make something good of this earth yet.
Can you see yourself as any of the characters in this story today? Maybe you're the one who runs errands in preparation for Christ’s work-providing transportation to someone in need; Perhaps you’re one of the hosts who sets the stage for Jesus’ arrival with a meal for neighbors and strangers alike. Maybe you’re simply in need of Jesus’ healing touch- and have the courage to approach him in prayer. Or are you like the children singing Jesus’ praise in the temple? Free in your worship of God? Perhaps you’re writing your own role. Even if you don’t see how you fit into the story of Jesus just yet, you will. Give it time- be open, pray for guidance, be present to those around you and see what role Jesus might be offering you.
Each of us is invited to claim Jesus’ type of confidently humble faith as our own. Do you believe this today, that you and I are part of God’s grand story? Can you trust that even when you’re living the mystery of it all, God is making something good of your life yet? Believing this is essential to discovering our role in the story.
If you’re wondering what part you might play in God’s Kingdom today, begin here: take stock of what you’re already good at…the kinds of activities that are life-giving and filled with joy. Think beyond self-comfort and momentary happiness. What is it that leaves you with lasting satisfaction? Do more of that. And the trust that real joy is contagious; no matter what you DO with your life, you will BE a part of God’s grand story. That is what Jesus came here to reveal- God within us, always at work making something new.
May we help one another discover the lasting joy of Jesus as we enter Holy Week. Amen.
Today Jesus invites into a vision of God’s kingdom that directly follows last week’s parable of the talents. Matthew 25: 31-46 is a call to look for the face of Jesus, even in the most unlikely of places and people.
“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, 33 and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. 34 Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35 for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ 37 Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38 And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39 And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ 40 And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ 41 Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; 42 for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ 44 Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ 45 Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ 46 And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
Last week our SS kids & several parents toured our local food pantry as they delivered 300 pounds of food we gathered as a church & over $2,000 to purchase more. I love this act of service each year, making real our commitment to being the hands and feet of Christ in this world. As long as humans have existed, so has hunger. And it’s the first person Jesus mentions in his teaching. “For I was hungry, and you gave me food.” He also finds himself relating to those who lack clothes, those who are forgotten, imprisoned. In short, Jesus is on the side of those for whom life has not been kind. He invites us to see him in their faces too. “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”
We often speak about showing Christ’s love by serving those around us in need. This is good and rewarding work. But how often does it cross your mind that the very people you are serving might actually be as close to Jesus as one can get? We believe that Jesus is present among us, even within us in some spiritual way, yes. But do we believe Jesus is within the person who is homeless, panhandling for money on a street corner? Just this weekend, driving through Sioux Falls, I noticed several men on the street corners, one with a walker. Another with a forlorn look on his face. All asking to be seen, to be noticed. And if I’m honest, that is NOT the first place I look for Christ in this world. But what if I did? What might change in all of our hearts if we truly begin to see the face of Christ as the face of someone who is hurting, smelling, angry, even mentally ill? Can we? Are we even capable?
Just last night AJ mentioned a statistic I find disturbing. For the past several years in America, it is estimated that we incarcerate more people than there are people who farm. It’s a complex issue, but suffice to say that if Jesus literally says, “I was in prison and you did not visit me,” we Christians ought to direct our attention that way. As Christians AND US Citizens, we will be wise to consider the wellbeing of both the incarcerated and an entire society that could benefit from less folks in prison and more more folks working to produce food for the hungry, maybe even themselves.
So why do the numbers keep climbing- those in prison, those hungry, those who are sick, isolated, and thirsty? Could it be that the body of Christ spends more time fracturing itself over minor differences than making any serious attempts to heed this direct word from Jesus?
When I hear it like this, I think- well, no wonder Jesus chooses some harsh language to describe the outcome of avoiding the most vulnerable among us…eternal punishment. The thing is, eternity begins today! We are meant to act NOW toward serving Christ by building up those around us, rather than tearing anyone down with false judgment or avoidance.
It’s not only other humans we are helping. It’s honoring the image of Christ in another. That’s our WHY, which permeates every single decision we make about WHO God has called us to be. We are people who SEE THE IMAGE OF GOD in another. And it sure makes avoiding another person in need more difficult, if we begin to catch a glimpse of God’s glory within them.
Leave it to Jesus to find the most unassuming places to show up. In the face of a hungry stranger. In the eyes of a weary traveler. In the feet of a homeless person. In the shackled heart of a prisoner. When we neglect to see Christ in our neighbors in need, we neglect the truth that they too belong to Christ— members of his family—just as we belong to Christ.
The parables of Jesus, as mysterious as they seem, are an invitation to see ourselves differently. To find a new perspective on the Kingdom of God. To experience Christ's presence in a new way. This week I challenge you to look a little more intently for the face of Jesus around you.
And I’ll share with you a bit of great advice I received over 20 years ago when my church youth group took a trip to Atlanta and stayed in a homeless mission for a week. It’s served me well in many an awkward situation passing alongside a homeless person or engaging with someone who is incarcerated.
Here it is: Look them in the eyes and smile. That’s it! I’m sure I don’t do it all the time, but I make an attempt each time I remember…to truly let that person know I see them. And I appreciate that we share this beautiful image of God inside us. That’s why I smile.
And it inspires to continue paving the road to the Kingdom of God wherever I find myself, even in uncomfortable situations, trusting in Jesus' words to those who dare to help the unseen people around them: Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. What a tremendous honor and challenge it is to serve the face of Christ in this world. Let us continue to stir one another toward service to all those who bear the image of Christ in the midst of their needs and pain. Amen!
It makes sense for us to see something of ourselves in the actions of each character in this story. Doing so allows us some honest self-assessment, and leaves ultimate judgment in the hands of God.
[Jesus said:] "For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master's money. After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, 'Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.' His master said to him, 'Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.' And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, 'Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.' His master said to him, 'Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.'
"Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, 'Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.' But his master replied, 'You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.'"
Once more this week, we prayerfully wonder together: Who are you, God? The kingdom of heaven is like a man who entrusts all his possessions to his servants. L. Susan Bond notes, "The word used for 'possessions' here in the Greek (hyparxonta) includes not only material goods but one's entire substance and life." So already we begin to see this story is about God and God’s intention for us: live our lives to the fullest! We receive all we have from divine love that exists within us, and are asked to think about what we do with it- cultivating and nurturing our spirits in a world that so desperately needs us to be centered and alive.
Let’s look at how the servants respond to the gifts they are given. Each receives an enormous amount of their Master’s money. How much? ONE talent is equal to the wages of a day laborer for 15 years! So 10, 5 or even 1 talent is a weighty amount to be responsible for! It seems the first two knew exactly what to do- they invested it, they put it to use, they made something of it. The third servant, however, hid it away. He let the resource become stagnant and unused.
So let me ask you, in this parable today, is it saving or investing that becomes the virtue of a trustworthy servant? Investing, right? The way we use the resources at our disposal is a reflection of how we think about God. There's something unique about the third servant in this parable. He began justifying hiding the money by blaming his Master's personality. He says, "I knew that you were a harsh man." The other two servants said nothing at all like this. How we think about God affects how generous we become. If I believe that God is harsh and exacting and cautious- then I might, like the third servant, be harsh and exacting and cautious with the resources God has given me. But if I believe that God is wise and trusting and generous, then I might too become wise and trusting and generous with my resources. I might also be willing to take risks.
The first two servants saw their Master as someone who invited risk for the sake of a fuller life. They would not have invested that much money without faith that no matter what happened, their efforts would be accepted. You know as well as I do, that investing in something is a risk-taking venture. Being generous—with our time, our finances, ourselves—can be risky. We don’t always know the outcome. We don’t have the assurance of what’s to come before we take the leap of faith.
But we take that leap anyway- hoping and trusting and believing that generosity is worth it. Of all weeks, I’m reminded deeply that life is unpredictable. We can take no breath for granted. And Jesus, who lived a full life for a mere 33 years on earth, calls us to double-down on what actually matters- like faith, family, and community. Expanding love as best we are able.
John A. Shedd, 20th century "A ship is safe in harbor, but that's not what ships are for.". Generosity requires an investment of faith, risk and all. This is the difference between saving our faith and investing in faith. One will get us nowhere fast, and the other will bring us into a generous--even if unknown-- future.
You know there’s risk, right? We might give our heart to another, only to be denied love. We might pour countless hours and energy into a program only to watch it die for lack of interest. We might give financial gifts to an organization only to hear of embezzlement and fraud. We might lend public support to people who are marginalized only to be marginalized by our friends. One of the riskiest parts of our investment into God’s Kingdom is this- we may not see the fruits of our labor in this lifetime.
So what do we do? We invest anyway, trusting that Jesus will be true to his word. “Well done, good and faithful servants, enter into the joy of your Master.” There’s one final promise in this story I'd like to share: living generously is a gift to God and to others, of course, but it’s also a gift to ourselves. The more loosely my heart holds onto my material possessions, the more risk I accept in generosity, the more freedom of spirit I have. It’s the life-giving power of letting go of control, trusting that God is at work in the release.
Erma Bombeck, author of a humorous newspaper column for over three decades said, "When I stand before God at the end of my life, I would hope that I would not have a single bit of talent left, and could say, 'I used everything you gave me." May we all enter into the joy of our Master as we learn to invest our whole selves in generosity and faith!
This Monday Sandra and I hashed out some semblance of meaning from this strange parable of Jesus’- but we definitely left with more questions than answers. I think you’ll see what I mean. Again this week, a parable describing God’s kingdom.
22 Once more Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying: 2 “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son. 3 He sent his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding banquet, but they would not come. 4 Again he sent other slaves, saying, ‘Tell those who have been invited: Look, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet.’ 5 But they made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business, 6 while the rest seized his slaves, mistreated them, and killed them. 7 The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city. 8 Then he said to his slaves, ‘The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. 9 Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.’ 10 Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad, so the wedding hall was filled with guests.
11 “But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe, 12 and he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?’ And he was speechless. 13 Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ 14 For many are called, but few are chosen.”
Today I’m gonna take us behind the scenes of a biblical text, I’ll be a student today right alongside you. In seminary, a few of my professors reminded us often: read any given scripture in light of what the rest of scripture tells you about God. Today, we read this uncomfortable text in light of knowing that God is loving and just. We also know that Jesus’ invitation on our lives expects us to be willing to change. These truths can be found all throughout the bible, so we start there. God is loving, just and desires real change in our lives.
Okay, the kingdom of heaven is like a wedding feast, and those who are too busy to attend are truly missing out. If we are too busy with “important” things- like work and what else- interfering in someone else’s business- maybe even hurting others, this simply means we are refusing the spirit’s invitation to the feast of Christ. The Kings says, ‘The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy.’ It can also mean we are saying one of two things: 1. Either Spirit isn’t worthy of our time or we aren’t worthy of being spiritual. Neither is true. This first half of the parable resonates with me. I can wrap my head around a kingdom in which simply saying YES gets anyone and everyone into the party; and being too important or busy to acknowledge God’s son means are missing out on the best part of life.
What gets really tricky, is that one guest who gets thrown out because of not wearing the wedding robe. Here’s where I’ll be a student with you, because honestly I don’t know anything about 1st Century customs at the time of Matthew’s writing. I do know people dedicate their lives to this study, so let’s listen in to professor Kimberly Wagner’s take:
“First, the harshness of this parable may be off-putting to the present-day faithful who appreciate their Jesus gentle, meek, and mild. However, there is something about the violence and intensity of this parable that shakes us up and may remind us that we are participating in not just our personal or even communal stories, but also in God’s eschatological story. What we do as people of faith matters. It is so easy these days to compartmentalize all the pieces of our life, particularly our faith life. We check “going to church” off the to-do list and may view our faith as one small aspect among many. The intensity of this parable and harsh consequences of refused invitations reminds us that living out our faith is a matter of urgency and importance.
Second, this parable insists that our faith ought to make a difference in how we live our lives. At first read, the last part of the parable (found only in Matthew) doesn’t seem to make a whole lot of sense. One of the last-minute invitees, recruited off the streets, shows up not wearing a wedding robe. The king notices this and inquires: “Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?” When the mis-dressed guest is literally speechless in reply, the King commands that the attendant “Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” How was the guest supposed to know he needed to pack a wedding robe? After all, he never got a “save the date!”
But, again, Matthew invites us to the world of allegory. [this is why we need biblical professors in our lives]. The “wedding garment” symbolizes the Christian life that we “put on.” This language is used in Galatians 3:27 where the community is told, “As many of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.” And this image is unpacked in Colossians 3:12: “As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.” In other words, there is an expectation that being a Christian, a Jesus-follower, will make a difference and be obvious in the way we live our lives. This parable, through metaphors and life-and-death consequences, insists that we, like Matthew’s community, need to live lives that do not just prioritize our faith, but reflect our faith to those around us.
Finally, this parable reminds us of God’s broad, persistent, and generous invitation. In this parable, God/the king does not desire to party alone. Instead, he keeps extending invitations to everyone around so that the wedding feast will be a rich array of people from every corner of the city. Likewise, the invitation towards faith and faithful living is extended to us, insistently, persistently for us to accept and relay to others.”
That’s helpful, right? Thanks Profession Wagner! It brings us back to what we already know about God: God is loving, just, and wants us at the party! God wants us to take our faith seriously enough that we change toward God- becoming more loving and just. Welcome to the party, friends, let's wear the robe.
Fair warning before we hear Jesus’ teaching today: I’m not sure any of us will fully comprehend what he is saying this side of eternity. As you hear these words, pay attention if feelings of defensiveness arise in you.
[And Jesus said:] "For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the market-place; and he said to them, 'You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.' So they went. When he went out again about noon and about three o'clock, he did the same. And about five o'clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, 'Why are you standing here idle all day?' They said to him, 'Because no one has hired us.' He said to them, 'You also go into the vineyard.' When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, 'Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.' When those hired about five o'clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, saying, 'These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.' But he replied to one of them, '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."
You know that defensive feeling I spoke of? We’ve been taught a certain type of justice all our lives. The kind that involves working HARD and being rewarded for it. This type of justice leads us to compare ourselves with others. Our coworkers, our partners, siblings one from another, neighbors, siblings in Christ. We’re social creatures, we compare ourselves with others AND we want our hard work to be noticed. This all seems to matter to us a great deal! I can tell you, when I clean the house & coordinate ALL the children’s activities & buy groceries & lander the towels, you better believe I want my work recognized. Do you have a version of this too, this “justice is EARNED” mentality?
The problem with comparison, however, is in the way it steals our joy. See, the first workers in the vineyard that day, they seemed content to work for a fair day’s wage…until, that is, they started the comparison game. They made the choice to no longer be satisfied. As much as this parable is about God’s relationship with us, it’s also about our human response. See, we forget that we have a choice in how we respond to a given situation. The early workers CHOSE to grumble. They CHOSE to reframe a situation in which they were offered a fair wage into a competition- and by doing so, they make themselves into losers. Why is this faulty logic? Because God doesn’t operate in a competitive way- it’s not in God’s nature.
You know what God chooses? Grace rather than a merit-based competition. EVEN when we don’t deserve it God’s generosity IS the way divine justice is bestowed. Generosity-by virtue of its definition- is never earned, and therefore generosity is never fair. Generosity is generous.
God is a generous God, this much we can be sure. And so Jesus uses this story to remind us- that we must hold our earthly existence (and all the comparisons and spiritual judgments) carefully, with gratitude and humility, never assuming “our way” is the only way to live into Christ's generous grace.
Hear Jesus' words again: 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? Yes, God- you are. It's your grace, yours alone.
The Kingdom of Heaven is not for us divvy out. It’s not for us to decide who’s earned it. Because, well, none of us do earn it. It's a gift, and the second we question the merits of that gift in someone else's life, I hear God’s voice whispering, “Or are you envious because I am generous?”
God's generosity transcends our human religion. These are my words, but I believe it's what Jesus is saying about the Kingdom of Heaven here. And this is truly good news, because it means that no matter what measures of worthiness (and unworthiness) we humans construct for ourselves, God finds a way to extend generosity that transcends our human expectations. Jesus finishes the story by saying, “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”
The last people we expect to be seated at the right hand of Jesus- will be there anyway, if God sees to it. That's how big our God is! I’d like to offer you the same invitation I heard from God this week because of this parable. What if you and I CHOSE to soften our competitive edges? How might we begin to reframe our experiences in life? Could it be the very idea of competition is preventing us from experiencing God’s grace in our lives?
God is generous to you and to me. Let us be generous with one another in response. Amen.
Jesus LOVES teaching in parables, these earthly stories with a heavenly meaning. Today we hear several whose meanings intertwine. I invite you to listen for what message of truth Jesus offers YOU today, keeping in mind that often God’s grace shows up in our lives through a moment of conviction.
He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field, 25 but while everybody was asleep an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat and then went away. 26 So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well. 27 And the servants of the householder came and said to him, ‘Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?’ 28 He answered, ‘An enemy has done this.’ The servants said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ 29 But he replied, ‘No, for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. 30 Let both of them grow together until the harvest, and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.’ ”
31 He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; 32 it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.”
33 He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.”Jesus told the crowds all these things in parables; without a parable he told them nothing. 35 This was to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet: “I will open my mouth to speak in parables; I will proclaim what has been hidden since the foundation.”
36 Then he left the crowds and went into the house. And his disciples approached him, saying, “Explain to us the parable of the weeds of the field.” 37 He answered, “The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man; 38 the field is the world, and the good seed are the children of the kingdom; the weeds are the children of the evil one, 39 and the enemy who sowed them is the devil; the harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are angels. 40 Just as the weeds are collected and burned up with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. 41 The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, 42 and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. 43 Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Let anyone with ears listen!
What heavenly meaning are we to take from this earthly story? In general I begin with a question Dr. Jackie Smallbones taught me nearly 20 years ago. Prayerfully wondering, “Who are YOU, God?” For as much as the bible offers us guidance in our lives, it’s a love story in which God is front and center. Every teaching that directs us to consider living into God’s kingdom is an invitation for you and I to accept God’s love and truly live as if we believe it.
This week, I felt a strong connection between Jesus’ words last Sunday “do not judge, lest you be judged.” and the moment in this parable when the servants (eager as they are to do the Master’s bidding) ask, “Should we tear up these weeds?” and the Master says, “No. That is not your work to do. Leave them be for now, I’ll take care of them when the time is right.”
In fact, even when the time does come, it’s not we humans who do the judging. Ever. The only instruction we’re offered in these parables is to be patient, like a person who sows a mustard seed and waits for the growth. Like a woman kneading dough, in anticipation of its rising. Like a child of the kingdom, relying on God’s grace to overpower all the weeds in our lives and in this world.
Yes, weeds are in this world, we know this! We also know how easy it can be for us to lose sight of who’s in charge when the weeds are allowed to overtake good growth. Jesus knows the weeds. They tried to entangle themselves ever so cleverly within his earthly ministry. Think of Jesus on the cross, surrounded by those intent on torturing him…and he asks God to forgive them. How? Because he knows even death itself cannot trample the good seed planted within our souls. And because of Jesus, we can now experience this too- this unending love that more powerful than hate.
This is how we trust the weeds do NOT win. They will never win. Not the weeds in our own hearts, not those that surround us. We have to believe this in order to live bravely into each new day. The good seed that God planted within us since the day of our birth will come to full fruit in God’s timing. So we wait. We may not even be able to fully understand the work God is up to around us, letting weeds grow among the good seeds. And that’s okay. We don’t have to have all the answers to hold onto faith. That’s the power of belief, it transcends our earthly experience. As we prayerfully wonder, “Who are you, God?” we begin to catch a glimpse of a new heaven and new earth where truth and order and divine goodness are restored to their rightful place, smack dab in the center of our souls.
This week during our Monday scripture study, Sandra read our text today from a version called the Amplified Bible. It caught our attention and I thought it would be good share today’s bible story from Matthew 7: 1-14 in that same language today:
Do not judge and criticize and condemn [others unfairly with an attitude of self-righteous superiority as though assuming the office of a judge], so that you will not be judged [unfairly]. 2 For just as you [hypocritically] judge others [when you are sinful and unrepentant], so will you be judged; and in accordance with your standard of measure [used to pass out judgment], judgment will be measured to you. 3 Why do you look at the [insignificant] speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice and acknowledge the [egregious] log that is in your own eye? 4 Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me get the speck out of your eye,’ when there is a log in your own eye? 5 You hypocrite (play-actor, pretender), first get the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.
6 “Do not give that which is holy to dogs, and do not throw your pearls before pigs, for they will trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you to pieces.
7 “Ask and keep on asking and it will be given to you; seek and keep on seeking and you will find; knock and keep on knocking and the door will be opened to you. 8 For everyone who keeps on asking receives, and he who keeps on seeking finds, and to him who keeps on knocking, it will be opened. 9 Or what man is there among you who, if his son asks for bread, will [instead] give him a stone? 10 Or if he asks for a fish, will [instead] give him a snake? 11 If you then, evil (sinful by nature) as you are, know how to give good and advantageous gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven [perfect as He is] give what is good and advantageous to those who keep on asking Him.
12 “So then, in everything treat others the same way you want them to treat you, for this is [the essence of] the Law and the [writings of the] Prophets. 13 “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad and easy to travel is the path that leads the way to destruction and eternal loss, and there are many who enter through it. 14 But small is the gate and narrow and difficult to travel is the path that leads the way to [everlasting] life, and there are few who find it.
Why is it SO HARD to keep from judging others? It’s hard, right? I’m not alone? I happen to be reading a book this week called The Four Agreements: A Practical Guide to Personal Freedom; without intending to be so, Don Miguel Ruiz’ book is a perfect companion to Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount here in Matthew 7. Ruiz wrestles with the reasons we judge ourselves and others- and offers a pathway out of those destructive patterns. His wisdom is remarkably similar to what Jesus said long ago.
For just as you [hypocritically] judge others [when you are sinful and unrepentant], so will you be judged.
I’d like to outline Ruiz’ four agreements for you and connect them with Jesus’ gospel teaching which promises freedom by living in the way of Christ.
The first of the four agreements is the hardest to both understand and do. 1. “Be impeccable with your word.” Ruiz describes the power of language to shape our identities and relationships. And a lot of the words that rest in our souls are not our own or God’s. They come from people who are need of redemption. It is our life’s work to re-examine those harmful words that rest in our hearts and claim a new narrative. We bear God’s image, which means we are most fully alive when we use our energy to bring love and light into this world, not harm and judgment.
Where to begin? We must first learn to let go of self-judgment. The book explains, “Being impeccable with your word is not using the word against yourself. If I see you in the street and I call you stupid, it appears that I’m using the word against you. But really I’m using my word against myself, because you’re going to hate me for this, and your hating me is not good for me.” p. 31 “Being impeccable with your word means to use your energy in the direction of truth and love for yourself [...] We have learned to use the word to curse, to blame, to find guilt, to destroy. [...] Misuse of the word is how we pull each other down and keep each other in a state of fear and doubt.”
What is the solution? As Christians, we turn to Jesus, who is always one step ahead of us humans. “So then, in everything treat others the same way you want them to treat you, for this is [the essence of] the Law and the [writings of the] Prophets.” We can make life pretty complicated, that’s what I love about the golden rule. It’s SO straightforward. This is the road to abundant life Jesus longs for us to take; it is not easy, the path is narrow, but it’s available. We can take it anytime we’re ready.
The second and third agreement Ruiz suggests are difficult, yet more easily understood. 2. “Don’t take anything personally, and 3. don’t make assumptions.” He goes into detail I won’t today, but I encourage you to take a whole day and observe your behaviors and thoughts and feelings in light of these first three agreements. I did this, and it’s fascinating how many times I said things I didn’t intend, I took on someone else’s feelings that weren’t my own, and I assumed something without asking for clarity. I can confirm the truth in Jesus’ words: “But small is the gate and narrow and difficult to travel is the path that leads the way to [everlasting] life.”
Thank God that Ruiz’ fourth agreement makes the other three possible. The final agreement is this: 4. “Always do your best.” He says, “Just do you best–in any circumstance in your life. It doesn’t matter if you are sick or tired, if you always do your best there is no way you can judge yourself. And if you don’t judge yourself there is no way you are going to suffer from guilt, blame, and self-punishment. By always doing your best, you will break a big spell that you have been under.” p. 78 Always doing your best is NOT the same as “strive to be perfect.” In fact, it’s the solution to perfectionism. Rather than demanding perfection, doing your best means you WON’T be and NEEDN’T be perfect.
Ruiz says, “The first three agreements will only work if you do your best. Don’t expect that you will always be able to be impeccable with your word. Your routine habits are too strong and firmly rooted in your mind. But you can do your best. Don’t expect that you will never take anything personally; just do your best. Don’t expect that you will never make another assumption, but you can certainly do your best. By doing your best, the habits of misusing your word, taking things personally, and making assumptions will become weaker and less frequent with time. You don’t need to judge yourself, feel guilty, or punish yourself if you cannot keep these agreements. If you’re doing your best, you will feel good about yourself even if you make mistakes.” p. 86
My favorite part of these four agreements is this: if we commit to them in our lives, we will find ourselves living the golden rule as a matter of integrity: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. When in doubt, follow this path and see what new life it may discover in you! You and I are beloved children of a loving God who has given us every tool we need to choose the higher road, the challenging path that leads to everlasting life. Praise God for the gift of each other for support and solidarity on the journey.
What you are about to hear is Jesus' mysterious message of salvation, a new way of understanding how to be spiritual in a world that would like to devour you with messages that say you aren’t measuring up.
When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain, and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. 2 And he began to speak and taught them, saying: 3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 4 “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. 5 “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. 6 “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. 7 “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. 8 “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. 9 “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. 10 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 11 “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
Salt and Light13 “You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything but is thrown out and trampled under foot.
14 “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. 15 People do not light a lamp and put it under the bushel basket; rather, they put it on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.
The Law and the Prophets17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. 18 For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. 19 Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
If you’ve ever felt poor in spirit, you know it’s a hard sell in that moment to believe you are blessed. At midnight this past Tuesday, a stomach bug hit me hard and wiped me out for a good 24 hrs. When I “came to” on Thursday morning, still pondering the meaning of this week’s scripture: “blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven, I laughed out loud. How is that possible? It’s hard to even feel human when your spirit is so low, let alone feel worthy of God’s presence.
And that’s when it clicked for me. I don’t have to “feel” God’s presence for it to be real. Maybe it’s most real when we don’t have the energy to even think about reaching out for God. You know that Footsteps in the Sand poem? It gets a bad rap in some ways for being overly sentimental, but I think it holds truth. “My child, when you see only one set of footprints, it was I that carried you.”
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Jesus knows suffering, even at the point of preaching this sermon, he knows what’s at stake for his future. And that moment he’s on the cross and cries out, “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me!” That's when our salvation becomes real. It’s those moments of experiencing “poor in spirit, mourn, meek” that open us to the reality that we need a savior.
It’s not about what happens after we die so much as it is about how we live today…accepting the gift of faith that rises to meet us in our greatest suffering. How so? Because Jesus, in those final moments on the cross, declares it OKAY to question God and still, God’s love for us remains.
That’s what it means to be blessed, to be God’s beloved. We’re not special or unique, God’s blessing is for all…but it does require us to be vulnerable, to ask for help, to say, “God, I can’t do this on my own.” And Jesus knows it takes a meek, poor, grieving, hungry, thirsty spirit to be open to such faith.
I am profoundly moved by the testimonies of faith I’ve heard from each of you. I know you trust God with difficult things, because I’ve gotten to share many stories of suffering alongside you. You’ve heard many of mine. A refrain I often hear in these stories is, “I don’t know how people get through hard times without faith.” Amen. This week as every cell in my body rebelled against my best attempts at health, I had to rely on God more than ever- even when I didn’t have the strength to pray. I had to trust every part of my work that went undone into the hands of the one to whom we as a church belong: Jesus, the cornerstone. We worship a God who knows what’s on our hearts even before we utter a word. And with that same tender attention, Jesus is able to turn suffering into something sacred. Like a shared connection with another, a moment of inspiration is someone else’s journey, a confirmation of God’s healing touch.
I will live on this faith until the day I die, and I’m honored to share this life of faith with you in this season of my life. Our blessing is not always in the flesh, it is in what lies deeper still, a spiritual stirring that enables us to give salt to the earth and light to the world, even amidst the darkness of our own experiences. So shine your light, be salt for this earth in the unique ways only you can. We all need that from you, just like you need it from us. And in the work of amplifying God’s righteousness, we begin to see more clearly our own paths unfold with goodness. May your journey with Christ continue to be illuminated by acts of love.
Rev. Emily Munger
delights in connecting sacred texts with everyday life.