10/29/17   No Portion in the Lord?      Joshua 22:10-16, 21-27; Eph. 4:25-5:1

This is a sermon about fear.


A woman awakened her husband one night at 2am, telling him that THIS TIME she was absolutely certain she heard a burglar moving around downstairs. Having been awakened in the middle of the night many times before her husband expressed doubt, but agreed nevertheless to drag himself out of bed and stumble downstairs. Suddenly a flashlight glared in his face and he felt the cold muzzle of a handgun stick in his ribs. The burglar threatened bodily harm if he tried to pull anything funny. “All right, I won’t give you any problems… on one condition.” “Look buddy, you’re in no position to be laying down conditions… ok, what’s your condition?” The husband was scared silly but determined, so he spit it out: “My wife has been expecting you every night for more than twenty years. I want her to meet you now that you’re finally here.”


Fear. Over-fed fear, to be exact. Anxiety feeds fear and we live in anxious times. Occasionally someone steals in to see me on a weekday when I’m at the church office. Usually it’s because they are scared and don’t know what to do. Scared for a child or grandchild who is showing signs of going off the rails, scared about losing a job or having lost a job. I do what I can to allay fears and help people decide what a good decision might be.


But much of what yanks at our heartstrings and inhibits our clear thinking isn’t even due to a family condition. We pick up the fear from the world around us, like a virus. “What if my children won’t be able to find work because of robots taking them all away ?” “What if a hurricane comes again and knocks the power out for months? What if a super-virus hits that we can’t create a vaccine for… maybe I should stock up on facemasks?” Again, as with the wife’s fear of burglary, the problems we fear are mostly real, but our fear magnifies our perception of the likelihood of their occurring and clouds our thinking about what we should do. Anxious and fearful, we become mistrusting, selfish, even paranoid.


That’s what happened, I think, in this strange story from Joshua about a civil war that was narrowly averted. The time is early in Israel’s history when each tribe ruled its own affairs. The Reubenites, the Gadites and the half-tribe of Manesseh live on the far west bank of the Jordan River, which forms a natural barrier between them and the other nine tribes. The isolated tribes on the wrong side of the river begin to fear that they will come to be regarded as strangers, second class citizens, even enemies, and be seen as religious outcasts by the majority who live on the east side of the Jordan. So they build a prohibited altar on their side of the river… an altar which, when discovered, raises up a fear among the other nine tribes that the Reubenites and Gadites and half-tribe of Manesseh have succumbed to the temptation of idolatry. A delegation is sent by the majority to question them, but it sure looks a lot like a war party. The leaders of the beleaguered minority try to explain:


In time to come your children might say to our children, ‘What have you to do with the Lord, the God of Israel?’ For the Lord has made the Jordan a boundary between us and you…{and so} you have no portion in the Lord.”


Does any of this make much sense to us today? No. But we forget what isolation and fear can do. Isolation makes the stranger feel exotic, maybe a bit dangerous. Fear brings on paranoia. As the story unfolds we hear a happy ending. The peace keeping delegation led by the priest Phineas evokes a reasoned response; peace wins out. The altar at the River Jordan is dedicated as a witness between brother and brother, one of the world’s first peace parks. Thanks be to God. But real life fears, anxieties, and conflicts don’t always work out so happily.


This week the world celebrates the 500th Anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. We mark this important event, too, because our religious heritage as the Community Church runs straight back to that relatively unknown monk Martin Luther pounding the 500 theses on the church door in Wittenberg, and to his courageous and yes, even stubborn refusal to compromise with Rome on matters of religious principle. He wasn’t trying to create a new branch of Christianity, he was trying to reform what all Europe considered to be the one true and universal church. But the stink of fear had crept into the church and distorted both good doctrine and rational thinking.


You and I today can’t really appreciate how much fear crept through everyday life in Europe. The devastation and destruction of plague was still a living memory. The borders that kept out invading and pillaging tribes from the east felt none too secure. But the biggest fear of all? Hellfire. Hell was a living, burning real place; people you knew went there. And in late Medieval times God was so unscruttable that you couldn’t be sure… be absolutely positive that what you said or did would keep you out of the marshy burning reeking ponds of gehanna.


Because fear was so rampant and it spread like a disease, the church became infected. Some wings of Christianity preached fire and brimstone and recommended all kinds of fierce penance and mortifications to allay God’s wrath. Other wings of the church said “Just trust us… God has given the keys to heaven and hell to Peter and his heirs and we can keep you safe if you do what we say.” Still other parts of the church saw the opportunity to make money, to do good of course. So the legal fiction of indulgences were created to help provide safe harbor after you died. You couldn’t buy your way out of hell but you could shorten your time waiting in Purgatory. “Three indulgences for 20 bucks. Sign here.” Like the Pelham Civics selling raffle tickets at Deciccos.

Fear led to distortion of the faith. What Martin Luther and the movement he sparked primarily gave back to the world wasn’t so much a striking set of original ideas so much as a restored confidence in God. The Reformation preached the trustworthy and just nature of God. God is Providentially caring like a Father (or a Mother). God is best known to us not as Judge, not as Avenger of Wrongs, but as Forgiver and Reconciler. And God has not abandoned us. No, God’s Spirit dwells with us and in us. Each one of us is capable of seeing the truth. We can find assurance of these things by reading the Holy Scriptures.

These insights of the Protestant Reformation, which seem second nature to us today whether we are members of the Community Church or members of Our Lady of Perpetual Help… these insights bequeathed to us 500 years ago were sparked by the need to combat our fears.


Well, I doubt that many of us here this morning spend nights lying awake wondering if we will feel the scorch of flames in hell. I do not for one second want to dismiss the notion of hell, or for that matter heaven, but we have mostly moved on beyond a very literal interpretation of either. And so fear subsides. I’m not saying that being agnostic about what comes after we die is a good thing… but we know for sure that heart-wrenching fear is not the way to go.


But if we no longer fear hellfire, that doesn’t mean that we’ve conquered fear itself. What do we lay awake at night thinking about? I don’t worry about burglars, but I do sometimes spend sleepless hours remembering the key incidents in my life, wondering if I’ve made the right decisions, wondering and sometimes fearing that I’ve wasted the one and only life God is likely to give me. I know what night sweats are like. Do you? Maybe you don’t wake up fearing the burglar downstairs, but I bet a lot of us live with real fears.


What do we do?


Garrison Keiller presented one alternative. His Prairie Home Companion radio show often featured imaginary advertisers who sponsored his broadcast. Here’s one for the “Fear Monger Shop.”


Yes, the world is full of big hairy spiders… even if you keep your house really clean… they’re here! They’re down I the basement. You probably know that when you go down there. But that doesn’t mean they STAY in the basement – especially when you go to sleep at night. They know you’re sleeping. And that’s when those big hairy spiders come slowly crawling up the stairs and through the living room and into the bedroom and up right on to your covers and over your arms, crawling right up to your face…


THAT’S WHY you need a bed net from the Fear-Monger Shop… It fits right over the bed. Tuck it in tight when you go to sleep and it keeps the spiders away. Stop by first thing tomorrow at the Fear-Monger Shop!


One thing we can do with our fears is laugh at them. Thank you Garrison Keillor. Laughter does help.


But laughter alone probably isn’t the answer. Now, you’d think that people of faith would be protected against fear, or at least have our faith act like a vaccination so that we get a lesser case of the virus. But it doesn’t work that way, does it? That’s because faith doesn’t magically protect us. We are capable of forgetting what we believe, who we trust God to be, at a particularly bad moment. And of course, faith also doesn’t protect us from bad things happening in the real world. Stray bullets, stray cancer cells.


The problem with our fears is what we do with them, and that’s where our faith can help. Burglary had become for the woman in the joke a dark, deep boogie man. She fed that fear until it became much larger, more powerful and even more harmful than any two-bit burglar would ever likely be. This poor woman managed to rob herself of more than 7,000 nights in her adult life. Don’t you allow yourself to do that.


Remember Jesus. He said, “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you.” The Reformation re-taught us that God is love, and that God is dependable, and that the grace of God given us with faith in Jesus the Christ reconciles us to God so that we can depart this world not as enemies but as friends to the Almighty and Merciful One. And what about the fears of this world, this day? The antidote to fear is honesty, and a little humility. These virtues are also fruits of the Reformation. In faith dare to think rationally. Face up to, admit, what really scares you. “What’s the worst that can happen?” is not only a punch line to a lot of jokes, but a good thing to ask yourself when you are down in the dumps. Is there anything in life that your God, your Christ, cannot help you bear? Not with faith. I begin my day by searching my heart, looking ahead to the things that I will likely face; and I lift up any fears to God in prayer, right at day’s beginning.


Such a prayer might go like this: “Dear Lord, I really worry about how I will handle this today… or I am afraid for _______ Be with her as she lives her life, be with her today. For I know there is nothing she or I cannot face because united in you we are more than conquerors, through him who loved us, Christ Jesus our Savior. Amen.”


Not a bad prayer to say when you are facing down your fears. Remember, Paul when he was trying to summarize his insights into the Gospel, told the Christiana at Ephesus: “Do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption.” God wants us to trust, not live in fear. And that one line of Paul’s became the seed that led to the doctrine that with God’s Spirit in us, we will persevere, through all things, even hell itself, to find our at-onement with God.


Why? Because we are brave? No.


Because God is faithful. Amen.


10/8/17   WICKED TENANTS      IS. 5:1-7; MT. 21:33-44

Friday morning I entered the elevator going up to our apartment from the laundry room, and chatted with another tenant with whom I’m friendly. “You see I’m finishing my wifely duties,” I said, pointing to the pile of laundry I was holding. “Don’t make me feel guilty… that’s on my list but I haven’t gotten to it.” “Well, I’m doing laundry as a way to postpone writing my sermon… this week is hard… what do you say to people after Sunday nights mass shooting in Las Vegas?” “Oh, wow, I can’t even imagine. I didn’t even know people could do such things. Really, never imagined it, it’s so ghastly. My daughter came home from school Monday and had heard about it and wanted to talk to me. Good luck in your talk Sunday.”


That ended our conversation, but here’s how I imagine it might continue. “Yes, I think it’s time for a really frank sermon about gun control.” “I agree with gun control, God knows I don’t want a gun around my daughter. But how do you make the scriptures raise that issue?”


Or I could tell say, “My sermon’s now half-done and I am exploring the nature of human evil. What makes someone like Stephen Paddock purchase $20,000 worth of weapons and scout for months for the perfect site to shoot down on a concert site so as to kill the maximum number of people?” She replies, “Sure. I get it. His childhood traumas and his social aloofness aren’t enough to explain this atrocity. Somewhere in him there must have been a spark of evil. Is it in all of us, I wonder?”


My imaginary conversation generated two possibly interesting sermons, but today’s scriptures got in the way. They don’t easily take us to Los Vegas. Let’s see where they do lead.


This parable of Jesus is called the parable of the wicked tenants. It’s found in all three synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke, and also… curiously… in the non-canonical Gospel of Thomas. Most scholars agree that the ending verses where Jesus asks his adversaries about the stone the builders rejected, quoting Psalm 118, is a later Christian addition alluding to his resurrection. One pretty good argument that these verses were written later is that they quote the Greek translation of the Old Testament, not the Hebrew.


But the basic story of the vineyard, the tenants, and the owner’s attempt to collect seem original to the earthly Jesus.

All the gospels agree that Jesus told the parable either in or near the temple, after his authority was challenged. He spoke it to his adversaries. They would have followed his allegory. The vineyard represented all of Israel. They would know the Song of the Vineyard from Isaiah 5:1-7, our OT lesson, perhaps by heart. “And now, inhabitants of Jerusalem, and people of Judah, judge between me and my vineyard.” Isaiah asks what more could God have done for his vineyard, yet the people yielded wild grapes.


If Israel is the vineyard, then the tenants in the vineyard must refer to the people’s leaders. When the tenants, the leaders, do not fulfill their obligation, they must be replaced.


The slaves sent by the owner refer allegorically to the great Hebrew prophets. The OT is full of stories about the prophets being mistreated and their message calling for reform being rejected by Jewish leaders.


The son certainly refers to Jesus. While Jesus didn’t usually refer to himself objectively as God’s Son, he did talk often about God as his Father and lifted up the filial nature of his relationship to God. Clearly he saw his vocation as that of continuing the preaching and work of the prophets before him, and just as clearly, he saw that his preaching and teaching would get him killed once he went to Jerusalem.


The basic details of the parable accurately reflect the realities of first-century Palestine. That a landowner might plant a vineyard, leave it in the care of tenants, and head off abroad wouldn’t have been unusual. First emissaries are sent, then the landowner’s son himself is dispatched as one with authority to clear up the dispute. The longer the landowner stayed away, the greater the presumption of ownership by the tenants. It happens today, too. I have a friend who owns land in Peru. He is involved in a very long legal process trying to evict squatters from land he and his brother own there. The tenants in the parable seem to be acting hastily in killing the owner’s son, but not necessarily irrationally.


The parable as Jesus told it ends with him asking a rhetorical question. “Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” The leaders can’t help but jump in and answer, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at harvest time.” Their words condemn their own actions, of course. Jesus saw that, they saw it themselves and hated him all the more for it. And we see it, too.


Is this only a Jewish question? Who are the new tenants of the vineyard to be? Later Christians to be sure thought of the new tenants as the apostles who spread out throughout the world and preached the risen Christ. Centuries later, the interpretation came to be that the Gentile church superseded all of Israel as God’s beloved vineyard. But we’ve seen where this interpretation has led us: misunderstanding and prejudice, enmity and ghettoizing, hatred, pogrom, expulsion and exploitation, culminating in holocaust.


Simply put, we cannot as Christians maintain that we are the new tenants of God’s vineyard without seeing oh so clearly that we too should be thrown out and given a miserable death for our treatment of the Jews.


No, the new tenants Jesus envisioned for God’s vineyard, the people of Israel, must surely have been better Jewish leaders. Leaders who will one day return to God a good harvest. Leaders who will stamp out the wild grapes and render to the Lord a sweet and rich vintage of love and justice, faithfulness, and respect for all. Israel has yet to really do this very completely.

But that’s Israel’s problem, and it’s for Jews to settle. I must admit to you that I find it repugnant when Christian churches gather and make pronouncements about what Israel should do, as if our hands are clean and we are in a neutral position to comment on Israel’s morality. What hypocrisy! Let the Jews settle for themselves who will run God’s vineyard.


Meanwhile what are we Christians to do?


There has been a tendency in interpretation through the centuries to say “God has given us a vineyard, too. The church.” But I think Jesus in this parable was only speaking about the fate of his people, the Jews. The church is not God’s vineyard, never was and never will be. The church is important, but it’s in a different relationship to God through the Son Jesus, than are the Jewish people.


As Christians, we are special to God, we do stand in a unique relationship, but not because of the church. We stand in a unique relationship to God because of the gift of the Holy Spirit which Christ left to us when we trust and believe with faith. God doesn’t ask us to run his vineyard.


But does God ask us to tend our garden, the garden that is each of our hearts.


The garden we are asked to tend is the gift of our salvation, the implanting of the Holy Spirit in our hearts, the gifts of faith. Come, tend God’s garden. It begins first inside you. Then it grows as we come together and share. Our coming together is called the church. Finally it can grow even beyond our coming together… we can plant and grow a garden together that begins to include and change other people. We can create a garden that people will want to be a part of. Then we will be good workers… in God’s garden.


If you’ve ever had a garden you know that beautiful moment in the early summer… the plants are all in and growing well. The rains have been just enough but not too much. You can see growth happening week by week, even day by day. You look forward to the first harvesting. You sigh. But your job isn’t done yet, because weeds grow too. If you aren’t vigilant they will grow faster than the vegetables and choke their pathway. So it is, my friends, in us. We are made in God’s image. When we respond with faith to the call of Jesus the Christ God’s Holy Spirit does amazing things within us. We grow our inner garden and we learn to share. But weeds can still grow inside. Christians can still do bad things. We can do evil.


I wonder if that’s what happened to Stephen Paddock. It doesn’t sound as if he ever was given much of an introduction to Jesus Christ, or even God. But he was born… made in the image of God. There was goodness inside him. As you read about accounts of his life from people who knew him, there were l oving things he did. But the weeds took over. They clogged the way to the light and his good gifts withered. He gradually failed to take care for himself. The weeds consumed his life and heart and in that darkness a desire to do the evil thing was the only thing that grew. And grew. And grew. What are we to do?


All of us have some weeds growing. Don’t let them take over. Help one another weed. Proclaim the victory of Christ over our desire to do evil. Make it his Garden. Dedicate it to him. Invite him into your garden over and over again.


Gun control might be a very good secular policy. Israel should find a way to live in peace with Palestinian Arabs, and of course they with Israel. But the first thing we need to do, as Christians, is to make sure we don’t allow ourselves to become Stephen Paddocks. Or the kind of Christians who spewed hate in Charlottesville. Tend God’s garden. That’s what we, as Christians, can do. Amen.


10/1/17   Take a Knee      Gen. 1:26-28; Ex. 20:4-6; Col. 3:9-14

Why should we care about the second commandment? I think it shows many of us in a pretty bad light.


The second commandment prohibits making for yourself an idol, or as it was often translated in older English versions, a graven image. The truth is, most of us don’t think very much about worshipping idols, little statues that pretend to be gods. In fact, most people in every faith throughout the globe don’t worship idols. Ask any Buddhist or Hindu practitioner and they will tell you that the statues of gods in their temples aren’t really gods. They just point to the one god behind the many gods. They would say a statue of a god is a worship aid, but not to be taken literally. This sophistication of course wasn’t so common when Moses received the commandments from God. People did worship idols. Even the Israelites were sorely tempted, as witness the infamous golden calf incident, when Moses was called away for too long and the people grew anxious and made a golden calf to worship. But that’s not who we are today.


Still, the great tradition of the scriptures as they think about the Ten Commandments points to the many little ways people continue to err toward idolatry. The early idols were all made of silver and gold in a time when silver and gold were rare, enticing, and represented a wealth far above what the average person could ever touch, let alone possess. Making worship images in silver and gold are expressly prohibited because they represent excessive wealth. Do not covet the silver or the gold that is on them and take them for yourself, ancient Torah interpreters warned. No one is meant by God to have so much wealth that they literally become godlike themselves. 


Becoming godlike themselves was the particular temptation of ancient kings. Monarchs liked to put their face on a coin, like James Madison but on gold rather than a five thousand dollar bill. In most ancient societies the king was regarded as an earthly representative of the gods, and so it also seemed natural to put the image of the god on the coin the king minted. The gods were backing up the king’s authority. And this of course was anathema to the ancient biblical ethicists. No human being could claim to represent God or have God’s power. No human being should claim people’s unquestioned allegiance like the allegiance we owe to the God we come to discover in the Bible.


As time went on and people thought more about what was included in the prohibition against idolatry, scripture interpreters said that the reason we cannot allow a depiction of God is because God should remain a mystery. God approached Moses out of the dark and never let Moses see the Divine face. The great tradition says that God is shrouded in mystery for a reason: so that humanity wouldn’t think it understood the Holy One… so that we wouldn’t try to label and dissect and explain God and make God an object of our learning. The ancient interpreters especially warned the clergy against the pride of creating theological systems which sought to explain and make visible the mysterious workings of the Almighty. The danger is in thinking that somehow our images which we create for God, images that can be made from words as well as gold, can somehow “capture” God.


The Biblical God will not be captured, explained, or made to fit a theological system. God is always free, and always bigger and beyond that which we can show or say.


A final application of the 2nd commandment asks us to reflect on our modern desire to turn celebrities into objects of worship. If we were prohibited from worshipping the ancient king as a god, then think of how much more this commandment demands that we refrain from idolizing the pop star or the sports star of today. Especially as society grows more secular and fewer and fewer people are brought up in any kind of religion, the appeal of throwing all one’s love and attention toward someone beautiful and powerful and famous can be overwhelming.

We look at tv and we want to be like that person, we want to dress like them, and we try to act like them. But no human being should be such a strong role model. I would say especially not most movie stars or pop singers or professional sports starts. Taking them too seriously is just not healthy for society. It distracts us from paying our full allegiance to the God who created and redeemed us.


Think about the alternative way of translating the second commandment: Thou shalt not make a graven image. No image we craft with human hands should be worshipped. And the truth is, some people are all about image. They will do anything to be seen as popular, successful, beautiful, trend-setters. A graven image doesn’t even have to be a thing. It can be how we present ourselves, asking others to worship us.


This is what disappoints me about our President. Not his policies, not the company he keeps, not any conniving to get elected. But the obvious fact that he feels he is a celebrity and celebrities must always be admired. This whole sorry back and forth drama with the Mayor of San Juan in Puerto Rico is so sad. Elderly and ill people are dying from lack of water and exposure to extreme heat, and all he can do is say “we’re doing a good job” and try to blame Puerto Rico. There’s no compassion, no hint of being able to say “maybe the Federal government could have done more in advance to lay aside emergency supplies on the island.” No humility.


It’s funny, though. President Trump has taken on one group that expects to be admired and idolized just as much as he does, and that’s our professional football players. What began as a sincere protest by 2nd string quarterback Colin Kapernack has morphed into a tug of war between the president and the whole NFL. He’s not going to win this one.


There is, however, one human image that we can gladly give homage to … not worship, never worship, but surely treat with respect… and that’s the human image when it allows the divine image to peek through. The scriptures say each one of us is the reflection of the divine image. Genesis makes clear that you and I, we, all humanity, are made in the powerful and frightening image of the God who creates us … the God who is love but cannot be seen him or herself. The God who relies on us to show forth the Divine character.


By this Genesis reminds us that the one reliable way God can begin to be understood is when human beings behave divinely. When we love one another God is made just a little bit more visible. When we stand up to protect the innocent and the unjustly treated… and here I’ll say thank you Colin Kapernick for your courage… when we do what is right and pure for the sake of the other, then our Holy Almighty and Mysterious God tips his cap. Christian Baptism, at its best, is the claiming for ourselves the Divine Image. And through our baptism we ask the Holy Spirit to help us lead lives that help others to see our Divine Parent.


So, the whole point is, don’t turn others into stars. It’s bad for you, it’s worse for the persons being idolized.


But do pay attention to the divine image stamped in us all.


Another way of saying this is be sure to wear the right clothes.


Now if you’re a star, you have a dresser and a wardrobe specialist and a publicist and a deal with a sports shoe company and a dress line and anti-aging cream endorsements and what not, of course. Those things go with celebrity. If you’re a star you have to dress like a star, and then you like as not feel impelled to do all sorts of outrageous things just so that we, your fans, pay attention to you. But that’s veering toward making an idol out of yourself, and that’s not good.


No, when I say wear the right clothes I’m thinking of the Apostle Paul’s analogy. As God’s chosen representatives bearing the image of Christ within you, put on compassion. Clothe yourselves with humility, meekness and patience. Bear with one another, forgive one another, and above all, wear love. Like that little black dress, love goes well at all occasions. It looks good first thing in the morning and even late at night.


Wear the right clothes. Let God’s image shine brightly through you.


And if you decide to take a knee in protest… and God knows there are lots of things to protest… be more like the guy who just scored a touchdown. He bends his knee and says a little prayer of thank you. It’s corny but it works every time. Give God the glory and you won’t go wrong. Amen.