Looking Lectionary: Proper 20A/Ordinary 25A/Pentecost +16

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A weekly look at the narrative lectionary reading from a prophetic perspective.

Reading: Matthew 20:1-16

There are a few ways we can look at Proper 20A’s Gospel reading. The general interpretation is that in Matthew 20:1-16 Jesus is speaking about entry into the Kingdom of God. Salvation isn’t reserved for the Jews but for everyone who believes, and even the people who are “saved last” (ie the Gentiles) will have the same reward as those who entered first. In a way, the last ones are even better off, for the Gentiles never had the law to guide them as the Jews did. A second interpretation is that Jesus is speaking here about grace in a more overarching way: God’s grace is the same to everyone who believes, regardless of their works, because in Christ our righteousness is equal. A final interpretation is more prophetic in nature. Jesus used the reality of unemployment and poverty in first century Palestine to school his audience in the Jubilee nature of the Kingdom of God. In this interpretation, practical (read: monetary) matters don’t fall outside the scope of God’s Kingdom. The wealthy and powerful don’t get a free pass to do with their finances as they please (a common enough situation in the society Jesus lived and taught in); their affairs are as subject to God’s Kingdom as the rest of them. In fact, in view of the workers’ resentment of equal wages, everyone should be careful not to idolise money. Of course these interpretations aren’t mutually exclusive. I want to focus on the kernel in each interpretation, which is this idea of “entry”–everyone gets to come in: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28).

Time and time again Jesus taught that the only requirement to salvation (and through salvation the full participation in his family, his Kingdom and its work) is repentance. The only sin we need repent of to be “allowed in” is our unbelief. The process of sanctification is a result of this repentance, this metanoia or “turning around”, and as such its lack isn’t enough to deny our salvation, our entry into God’s Kingdom.

This is pretty basic, but I think it’s important to remember this in our “churchified” societies (in the Westernised world, at least). In many churches, entry into God’s Kingdom is wrongfully equated with the process of sanctification itself. It’s a works-based mentality that demands “evidence” of our salvation, when the only evidence needed is our salvation itself. God’s grace is in full evidence in our salvation, regardless of what we do with that salvation. The old objection, “So I can give my life to Christ and go on sinning till the day I die?” actually holds true. You could. That’s grace.

But, we Pew Fillers object, that’s unfair! And if we see grace as something that’s earned through our comparative goodness or obedience or God forbid, church attendance, then yes, it is unfair! It’s outrageous! But if we see grace as an undeserved gift – one the Giver, Jesus, can do with as it pleases him – then we realise that no, it’s not so unfair. The parable Jesus tells in Matthew 20:1-16 makes clear that the amount of work done has nothing to do with the wages paid. The “wage” of grace is always the same, it’s always complete and it’s always free because it isn’t a wage at all, but a gift. We cannot earn it.

The reason I wanted to discuss this particular interpretation is because any discussion of how unearned grace is must be encouraging. We cannot earn grace. This should be a relief whether our week has been filled with good deeds or bad ones, because damn it all, our effort or lack of it has nothing to do with what we get. We get it all. That’s been established. When we “continue to work out [our] salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil 2:12), it means simply realising again and again that we have been saved. It’s happened. “It is finished,” Jesus said. That’s the beginning and the end of it. That’s why grace is freedom from sin and death: it breaks their rules. It breaks their cycle. It changes the world.

Who we identify with in this parable will tell us a lot about our faith, and in what, or whom, our faith is. Do we identify with the labourers who’ve been at it since morning? Are we the ones who showed up later still, or last? Are we still standing around at the marketplace, waiting? Grace tells us clearly that it doesn’t matter which of these “workers” we are. Our gift is the same: it is inclusion, it is grace, it is life, it is God looking at you and saying, “Yes, yes, yes.”

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Looking Lectionary (Proper 18A/Ordinary 23A/Pentecost +14)

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A weekly look at the narrative lectionary reading from a prophetic perspective.

Reading: Matthew 18:15-20

It bothers me no end that some folks are going to take a look at Proper 18A’s Gospel reading, nicker to themselves and preach a sermon on church discipline full of emphasis on church authority and covenental relationships and probably as a bonus, gender hierarchy. Because hey, why not? This is Jesus speaking, and Jesus is saying folks should be “subject to” those “above” them; moreover, the church is necessarily more powerful because “where two or three are gathered…”

Shall we tread the same path as these folks? Is Jesus really padding the case for the church-centric theology so popular nowadays?

On a superficial level I suppose we can interpret this snatch of Gospel as Jesus prophetically injecting the future church with credibility and moral authority overs it members. Could he have foreseen the challenges of the church at the time Matthew’s Gospel was composed, several decades after Jesus’ death and resurrection? Yessir. So a straight reading wouldn’t be far off the beaten path.

But then this is Jesus we’re dealing with. Jesus, who so often said things to catch his disciples out in their assumptions, and who used irony as a way to weed wheat from chaff. This Jesus told his disciples that those resisting church discipline should be treated as “pagan[s] and tax collector[s]” (v17). The superficial reading cries: “Cast them out!” But when you’ve gotten accustomed to the tenor of Jesus’ ways in the New Testament, you’ll remember how Jesus treated pagans and tax collectors. You’ll remember the Roman soldier’s servant he healed, the prominent (and short-statured) publican he dined with, the Canaanite woman’s daughter he exorcised, the Samaritan woman at the well. You’ll remember that Jesus’ harshest criticism wasn’t reserved for the cast out, but for the let in: the ones “let in” who were so keen to police the gates.

If that isn’t enough to ween you off the superficial reading, the easy one that affirms traditional nexuses of power within the church and society, then run an eye over the stories before and after these few verses, specifically the parable that follows: that of the unmerciful servant. Far from commanding his followers to cast out those they deemed unfit to belong, Jesus, I think, foresaw the temptation of power churches so often fail to resist; the temptation of “group think” and spiritual abuse, of tradition and fear of change. It’s us he’s speaking to in these verses, the ones who would use a superficial reading of his words to bully. And he’s telling us to love the broken, love the broken, love the broken.

All that said, this “Jesus perspective” won’t be as easy to preach about as a more superficial reading. The leadership won’t like that their authority is being threatened, and you betcha there will be folks in the pews thinking that this excuses them from accountability for their harmful actions. The uncomfortable truth is that both leadership and errant congregant may be right. In his letters, John the Elder wrote, “Love covers a multitude of sins.” The Church tends to err on the side of power when it comes to love; we call it authority. But – oh dear – what if we err on the side of servanthood when it comes to love, and call it grace? Our churches will be messier, for sure, but might they not be more alive to the Spirit?

That Jesus post scripted his rumination on confronting sinful church members with verses 19-20 (“For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them”) is instructive. In treating each other the way he treated pagans and tax collectors, we leave much more room for His Spirit to work in them and ourselves than when we treat them the way we want to.

Looking Lectionary: Proper 16A/Ordinary 21A/Pentecost +12

 

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Reading: Matthew 16:13-20

It’s certainly an interesting time to ask what the church has bound and loosed. Over eighty percent of American Evangelicals voted for Donald Trump, an unstable sexist and bigot, and a disproportionate amount of them continue to support him through his totalitarian tendencies for a taste of partisan power and influence. Debates about the personhood of people who aren’t white, straight or male and their place in church and society are still going on, and a depressingly large chunk of people seem to think that not being white, straight or male is an offence for which the only cure is submitting to people who are straight, white and male. Local churches, once so involved in the work against apartheid, stagnate under their spires, opting to “play it safe” rather than ask reasonable questions and demand reasonable responses from their communities and their government. Over and over again we see corrupt leadership, many if not most of them self-proclaimed Christians, choose self-enrichment over accountability, honesty and compassion. Yes indeed, it’s an interesting time to ask this question: what is the church of Christ binding and loosing?

There are two distinct parts to Proper 16A’s Gospel reading: Simon Peter responding to Jesus’ invitation to acknowledge him as the Christ, and Jesus’ subsequent blessing of Peter as the rock on which he would build his church when Peter accepted his invitation. It’s a simple enough equation: confessing Jesus as Lord and Saviour and living as people who do equal a church that is rooted, stable, unchanging in its values of love, compassion and justice even as the society around it changes. Against a church that truly builds its identity upon the identity of Christ Hades cannot stand because it is inured to the values most detrimental to its survival.

But as soon as we start to pry these two things apart, as soon as we break up this closed loop of confessing Jesus as Saviour = the “rock” of Christ’s church, either our confession of Jesus as the Christ falters or the church’s steadiness and effectiveness does. If we confess Jesus as our Lord without living church, the confession loses much of its meaning. If the church forgets its confession of Jesus Christ as the only confession worth structuring itself around and instead begins to confess itself as the Messiah, it loses its way. Both extremes lead to an emptier faith that is less concerned with the Kingdom and more concerned with itself, and either its own safety or its own propagation.

If we really, sincerely want to take the difference Jesus has made in our lives and share it with the world around us, we must return to Peter’s confession in order to receive his blessing. It’s only from that position that we can hope to bind things like greed, envy, exploitation, oppression and cruelty, and loose the love, grace, mercy, compassion and healing of Jesus in the world.

This is going to look different depending on who and where we are. For some of us, it’ll mean a search for Jesus’ eyes, to see other people and ourselves differently. For some of us, it will mean a search for different hands, hands that aren’t clamped shut but held open. For others yet it will mean the search for renewed hearts – willing to love neighbours regardless of differences or similarities. For others, a search for new feet, to tramp places we’ve avoided and to tread on toes we’ve been afraid of treading on – grace, after all, has big feet.

Like Peter, our job is to keep responding to Jesus’ invitation to acknowledge him as our Lord and in doing so, to be continually strengthened as his Body.

Looking Lectionary: Easter 5A

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Reading: John 14:1-14

“From now on you do know him and have seen him” (John 14:7b)

To have seen God! We Christians have a tendency to romanticize the fact that the old prophets, like Abraham and Moses, had face-to-face encounters with God; “If that had been us,” we lament, “we wouldn’t have doubted half so much!” But for your average Jew, the sight of God was unimaginable. The great I AM was shrouded in tabernacle and temple and the Holy of Holies: visited once a year, glimpsed only by a man set aside for the job in holiness and righteousness.

So when Jesus told his disciples that they knew the Father and had already seen him? This was a big deal. A hold-your-breath moment. Staggering. It’s perhaps unsurprising that Philip asked, tentative, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” For Philip and the rest, it could not compute that they had somehow seen the Father without realising it – this was the God who set Moses’ face aglow with his presence. How could they have missed it?

We see things through the filter of our minds, both on a physiological and psychological level. Our unconscious filters out details it deems unimportant, so there’s truth to the fact that we struggle with seeing things objectively when even our observation is suspect. Add our psychological filter – biased to self and relating everything to the self before “plugging it into” other perceptions, and it’s obvious that our “sight” as such is compromised.

Jesus’ disciples, Jews that they were, had learned to see – or not see – God in a particular way; one that didn’t account for the incarnation of God the Father as the Son. That God would thus reveal himself – his heart, his mind, his very character – in a man named Jesus was astounding. It’s why Jesus went to such pains to drive the point home that if the disciples had seen him, known him, then they had seen and known the Father; moreover, that even as the Father dwelt in Jesus, and Jesus in him, the disciples and believers would come to dwell with God in his house. John, in his wordy way, closed the loop between believers and God, a loop that had been open a long time.

Nowadays we have the benefit of the revelation of Jesus Christ. In relationship, we see the whole of the Trinity revealed in Jesus: the Father he revealed, and the Holy Spirit left behind as a constant revelation. But I wonder if religion sometimes “shifts” our sight away from this incomprehensible, astounding vision of God’s heart to something that fits more comfortably within doctrine and liturgy and an hour on Sunday; and if we aren’t poorer, blinder, for the difference.

Jesus is “the truth, the way, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” Apart from Jesus, our vision of the Father is foggy, limited; woe to us, then, if we lose sight even of him: this Nazarene with his compassion and his dusty feet, revealing God’s love in diseased skin touched, blind eyes healed, stooped backs righted, dead people raised.

Understood this way, we come to dwell in this vision of God, this reality of who God is; and this reality is his kingdom, come.

Blessings for your week,
Lee

Looking Lectionary: Easter 2A

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Easter 2A’s reading: John 20:19-31

Easter is many things. Enriching, captivating, solemn, joyous, troublesome, a relief, a challenge. Easter is toil and contemplation and awakening. For church staff and congregants alike it’s the longest week in the Christian calendar, rapid-fire emotional, spiritual and intellectual experiences squeezed into a single week, usually with multiple services throughout. So while Easter is a blessing, it is also utterly exhausting.

Then comes Easter 2A, with Doubting Thomas’ question forming the core of this rapid-fire reading: peace, the Holy Spirit, witness, Messiah. For overwrought Easter nerves, it might feel a bit like an onslaught. Perhaps this is something we share with Jesus’ original disciples: like we want to lock ourselves in a room just to get a moment to absorb it all, to talk it over, to share quietly. Maybe, like Thomas, we want to go missing in action, to try to find a way to come to grips with the events of the past few days: Jesus’ trial, death, and then his apparent resurrection.

It is at this moment that Jesus steps in, steps into our rooms and says, “Peace be with you” before breathing the peace and power of the Holy Spirit onto us.

In the Bible, breath is often associated with God (as Bruce Epperly writes). God breathed the universe into existence. He breathed humanity into life. He breathed life into dry bones. The Holy Spirit is the breath of God, and as Jesus breathes her over the disciples, she breathes life back into them. A week before it had been Jesus’ turn; now it was his disciples’ turn!

If you read the text you’ll notice that Thomas apparently misses out on the deliverance of the Holy Spirit – he isn’t in the room when Jesus breathes her out on the others. But then Jesus does something extraordinary: he allows Thomas to physically touch the wounds in his hand and side. This would have put him within breathing distance. So perhaps when Thomas exclaims, “My Lord and my God!” it’s not so much the physical evidence that he finds compelling as the life-giving faith of indwelling by the Holy Spirit.

On Easter we get to preach the resurrection of Jesus Christ from death; on the second Sunday, we get to preach on our own resurrection and continual life through the Holy Spirit. The excitement (trepidation, frustration) of Easter inevitably gives way to this: a peace that transcends all understanding.

Blessings,

Lee