The Advent | 1st of Advent

Isaiah 64:1-9

1 If only you would tear open the heavens and come down! Mountains would quake before you 2 like fire igniting brushwood or making water boil. If you would make your name known to your enemies, the nations would tremble in your presence.

3 When you accomplished wonders beyond all our expectations; when you came down, mountains quaked before you. 4 From ancient times, no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any god but you who acts on behalf of those who wait for him! 5 You look after those who gladly do right; they will praise you for your ways. But you were angry when we sinned; you hid yourself when we did wrong. 6 We have all become like the unclean; all our righteous deeds are like a menstrual rag. All of us wither like a leaf; our sins, like the wind, carry us away. 7 No one calls on your name; no one bothers to hold on to you, for you have hidden yourself from us, and have handed us over to our sin.

8 But now, LORD, you are our father. We are the clay, and you are our potter. All of us are the work of your hand. 9 Don’t rage so fiercely, LORD; don’t hold our sins against us forever, but gaze now on your people, all of us. (CEB)

The Advent

When I go to the grocery store, I usually walk down the entire checkout row to find the shortest line. I don’t like to wait. It makes me wonder how I ever survived the days of rotary-phone dialing, and dial-up internet when it took ten minutes to load up a single webpage.

And I’m not the only one. Waiting isn’t something that any of us like to do. Oh, sure, there are people who don’t mind waiting so much, but I’m not one of them. And it’s not like any of us seek to wait. That’s why I think the Black Friday shoppers who camp out at store entrances are crazy. Seriously, think about what they’re doing. They’re waiting in line so they don’t have to wait in line when the store actually opens. Who thinks that’s a logical idea?

Right now I’m waiting for five books to be published so I can read them. They’re already pre-ordered, and they’ll be at my door the day they’re released. But they’re all sequels, and I want to read them now. I don’t want to wait. Waiting is not on my list of virtues.

I don’t know that it’s on anyone’s list, quite honestly. We are a people of hurried, if not instant, gratification. We don’t even want to wait for Christmas to get here. Ask any kid and they’ll tell you, “I can’t wait until Christmas!” and they mean it! I think some kids would rather hunt Santa Claus down than wait for him to show up at their house.

It’s no wonder that Advent is not a very popular season on the Christian calendar. Some of us would prefer to skip Advent and get right to Christmas. We want these four Sundays to get out of our way so we can get to the Christmas family gatherings, the food, the candy, and the presents!

What’s Advent about, anyway? Why does it feel like some ogre-saint of old put this season in the way to block our path to Christmas joy? What’s this inconvenient season even doing here? Can’t we just shove it aside? Why do we have to bother with Advent?

I don’t like to wait, and yet, Advent is one of my favorite seasons on the Christian calendar. I think it’s one of my favorites because, in part, Advent tries to teach us how to do the very thing I don’t like to do. Advent tells us to learn how to wait.

In Isaiah 64, the prophet laments this very thing. Terrible stuff was going on all around the people of Israel. Horrible things were happening to them. They were waiting for God to act, to intervene, to get involved. But God wasn’t appearing. For Isaiah, this became an active waiting. He cried out, he prayed, he looked, he searched. The people suffered in exile, their cities had been laid waste, their Temple where they once worshiped the Lord had been burned to the ground. And still they waited for God to appear. But waiting is hard.

He cried out for God to come down, to make God’s presence known and felt, to do awesome deeds of power like God did in ages past. Isaiah remembered what God had done and cried out for God to show up again. After all, no one has ever heard or seen any God besides the Lord. Isaiah confessed that God works for those who wait, and meets those who do what is right and who remember God’s ways.

But something had gone wrong.

Isaiah looked around him and saw abandonment. From his point of view, God had simply stopped showing up. His prayer turns in a direction that sounds surprising to us. Isaiah acknowledged Israel’s sin, but claimed that God, too, must share some of the blame. Isaiah said, “But you were angry, and we sinned; because you hid yourself we transgressed.”

How can human beings not sin when God is absent? How can we possibly do what is right when God hides from us? God can’t brush these sinful people off for this very reason: God’s absence initiates sin in human community! We might be sinners, but when God disappears, we sin more!

Now, what we need to understand about Isaiah’s prayer is that Isaiah is not saying this in order to excuse the people’s sin. He’s not passing the buck by blaming God. Rather, Isaiah is trying to make the claim that God has a stake in them as a people. He’s trying to motivate God to act in a redemptive manner on behalf of the people whom God took for God’s own self and made God’s own inheritance.

It’s like marriage. When Joy and I got married, I knew that I was hers and she was mine: the good, the bad, and everything in-between.

Isaiah fully acknowledges the people’s sin. He admits that they’re unclean, that their righteousness is like a menstrual rag in need of washing. He admits that the people have turned away, that no one calls upon God’s name or attempts to hold on to God. God’s face is hidden.

Isaiah describes the punishment the people are currently enduring as a result of their own iniquity. They are reaping the consequences of their sin. He says, “You have melted us into the hand of our iniquity,” (Isaiah 64:7d my translation).

This is what we chose, and so this is what you allowed us to have. The guilt of the people, Isaiah suggests, is a guilt so insidious, so all-encompassing that it engulfs and overwhelms both Israel and God.

Then Isaiah says, “But now, Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter. All of us are all the work of your hand,” (Isaiah 64:8 CEB). Isaiah is trying to remind the Lord that Israel has a claim upon God because they are FAMILY. The Lord made Israel what they are: children of God. So the Lord is bound by an irrevocable covenant to act on Israel’s behalf. God cannot abandon them. The relationship between God and Israel requires God to act.

Gaze now on your people,” Isaiah says. God cannot, God will not let the people be wiped out any more than a loving parent would abandon their own child to death, or a potter shatter the prized work of their hands. God must act. Isaiah knows it, and Isaiah is waiting. He’s even screaming his head off about it, God, I’m waiting!

When I read this, I hear Isaiah’s longing and Isaiah’s anguish. I hear Isaiah’s prayer, and I find that it echoes my own prayers of late. I read the news reports where men, women, and children are being slaughtered. I read about so-called “honor killings,” rape, kidnapping, murder, sexual slavery, and violence against women and girls. School children are murdered in classrooms here, and kidnapped from classrooms in other lands. Captive girls are sold as brides. Children are gunned down by police officers. Nations play power games by inciting violence in other nations. And the lives of people who, like any of us, just want to live are destroyed.

And I find myself asking God, Where are you? How long will you let this go on? Get up off your couch, rouse yourself and get involved! If you’re going to hide away from us, of course this is going to be the result! Where are you, God? I’ve prayed this prayer because I feel helpless. I feel abandoned. And it seems to me that only God can fix this.

It sounds like an impertinent prayer. But it’s a prayer that I learned from reading the Psalms. My heart echoes the words of Psalm 44, “No, God, it’s because of you that we are getting killed every day—it’s because of you that we are considered sheep ready for slaughter. Wake up! Why are you sleeping, Lord? Get up! Don’t reject us forever! Why are you hiding your face, forgetting our suffering and oppression? Look: we’re going down to the dust; our stomachs are flat on the ground! Stand up! Help us! Save us for the sake of your faithful love,” (Psalm 44:22-26 CEB).

It’s a prayer of desperate need for God’s presence.

And yet, I must acknowledge that I, too, am guilty. Even in this community at First UMC, I haven’t loved as well as I ought to love. I haven’t cared as I ought to care. I haven’t always been the father or husband I ought to be. And those are just a few of my sins of omission.

When we’re surrounded by such violence, injustice, and oppression it’s easy to forget that God is with us. It’s easy to forget that God has torn open the heavens and come down. The Word became flesh, the Son became a human being in order to be Emmanuel: God with us. The Holy Spirit has been poured out and is with us in the midst of everything. God is with us.

Advent is a season of waiting. It’s about how we wait, hope, and watch. It’s been almost two-thousand years since Christ was raised from the dead and ascended into heaven, but still we wait for the fullness of God’s Kingdom to come. We await Christ’s return and the day when every wrong that has ever been shall be set aright.

In the meantime, Isaiah reminds us that our waiting is an active endeavor. This kind of waiting requires action. It requires that we seek God.

Advent reminds us to seek the Lord. But it tries to do so in the midst of the very weeks of the year when we’re encouraged to go crazy. It’s the season in which our culture invites us to—in some sense—lose control and lose patience. It’s a season of excess.

We need to seek God, but it requires action on our part. It takes active waiting where we watch and hope with joy. We are God’s people, and God has torn open the heavens and come down to us. God is here. But God’s presence is not always what we expect.

Advent invites us to wait as Isaiah waited: to wait with action. Like Lent, Advent is a time to renew our dedication to God and the disciplines of the faith. We are invited to grow closer to God; to pray, to seek, to study, to search, and to serve others. It’s the Christian New Year, so make a resolution. Christmas will be here soon enough, and the Kingdom of God is on its way. Let’s wait for the arrival of both with action by loving and caring for others.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

~Pastopher

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The Sheep and the Goats | Proper 29

Matthew 25:31-46

31 “Now when the Human One comes in his majesty and all his angels are with him, he will sit on his majestic throne. 32 All the nations will be gathered in front of him. He will separate them from each other, just as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 He will put the sheep on his right side. But the goats he will put on his left.

34 “Then the king will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who will receive good things from my Father. Inherit the kingdom that was prepared for you before the world began. 35 I was hungry and you gave me food to eat. I was thirsty and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me. 36 I was naked and you gave me clothes to wear. I was sick and you took care of me. I was in prison and you visited me.’

37 “Then those who are righteous will reply to him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you a drink? 38 When did we see you as a stranger and welcome you, or naked and give you clothes to wear? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’

40 “Then the king will reply to them, ‘I assure you that when you have done it for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you have done it for me.’

41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Get away from me, you who will receive terrible things. Go into the unending fire that has been prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 I was hungry and you didn’t give me food to eat. I was thirsty and you didn’t give me anything to drink. 43 I was a stranger and you didn’t welcome me. I was naked and you didn’t give me clothes to wear. I was sick and in prison, and you didn’t visit me.’

44 “Then they will reply, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison and didn’t do anything to help you?’ 45 Then he will answer, ‘I assure you that when you haven’t done it for one of the least of these, you haven’t done it for me.’ 46 And they will go away into eternal punishment. But the righteous ones will go into eternal life.” (CEB)

The Sheep and the Goats

This last of the four Advent Parables in Matthew tells of Jesus’ return and the ensuing judgement of the world. Christ the King Sunday gives us permission to hold an early celebration of the universal rule and reign of God and the coming Kingdom of Heaven. I say it’s an early celebration because, while the kingdom is here in part, the kingdom is not yet here fully. While no earthly power can match the power of the reigning Lord, we’re reminded that much is yet promised. Right now, we live in a sort of interim—a time between the times.

The surprising thing Jesus teaches here, which really shouldn’t be a surprise for those who’ve been listening, is that the King of Kings is revealed to us among the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick, and the imprisoned. That notion still tends to surprise us even though Jesus was notorious for welcoming prostitutes and other stigmatized sinners into the kingdom of Heaven and telling those who presumed themselves to be righteous that they could go to Gehenna. The judge who sits on the throne surprises because the judgments of Jesus are unlike ours.”

One thing that strikes me every time I read this Great Judgement passage is that neither the blessed nor the accursed realize anything about what they had done or failed to do: they’re all surprised! When Jesus calls the blessed into the kingdom and tells them, “I was hungry and you gave me food to eat. I was thirsty and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me. I was naked and you gave me clothes to wear. I was sick and you took care of me. I was in prison and you visited me’” (Matt. 25:35-36 CEB), their response will be one of surprise, “Lord, when did we see you?”

When Jesus commands the accursed to get away from him he’ll say, “I was hungry and you didn’t give me food to eat. I was thirsty and you didn’t give me anything to drink. I was a stranger and you didn’t welcome me. I was naked and you didn’t give me clothes to wear. I was sick and in prison, and you didn’t visit me,’” (Matt. 25:42-43 CEB). The response from those who are accursed also will be one of surprise, “Lord, when did we see you?”

How is it that neither the blessed nor the accursed came to realize what they were and were not doing? I think part of the answer has to do with habit. When a practice becomes habit we often fail to realize that we do the practice. When I’m lost in thought I often pick my lip with my finger. Sometimes, when I unconsciously raise my hand to my mouth in an act of deep contemplation, my thoughts will be suddenly interrupted as Joy smacks my hand away from my mouth and says, “Stop picking your lip.”

When children are learning to tie their shoes they often begin with difficulty, but with practice they can learn to tie their shoes without even thinking about it. When was the last time any of you tried to tie your shoes and had to think it through? It’s just habit: something we can do with our eyes closed.

It seems as though the accursed became so hard, so callous, so indifferent, and their religion so apathetic, that they never recognized the fact that Jesus identifies with other people in love. The accursed closed their ears to Jesus’ command that we act toward others in sincere deeds of compassion—that we take care of each other. The people who were among the goats were not necessarily ignorant concerning Jesus, but they were surprised to discover—just as the blessed were surprised to discover—that they had met Jesus many times along the way and didn’t recognize him in the faces of the poor, downtrodden, and rejected.

Again, the difference between the blessed and the accursed was how they acted toward others. Apparently, the accursed had never developed their faith or love of God beyond their first confession of believing in Christ. Their faith became an empty and dead faith—empty ritual and correct creed—instead of a full and living faith. And while there’s nothing wrong with ritual or creed—which can be wonderful and deeply powerful expressions of faithfulness—there is a problem when we separate Jesus from what we do: when ritual and creed—when faith itself—become empty and removed from Jesus Christ. A citizen of Heaven must be more than this.

For the blessed their habit was doing. Their habit was living out their faith so that it permeated into every part of their being. In Matthew 13:33 we’re told, “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast, which a woman took and hid in a bushel of wheat flour until the yeast had worked its way through all the dough” (Matt. 13:33 CEB). A little yeast permeates throughout, and leavens the entire loaf. As Christians, as citizens of the Kingdom our faith cannot merely be viewed as a part of our lives. Our faith must become our life! Our faith must permeate throughout every part of our being. It should affect us in all that we do, and cause the practice of our faith to become our habit. This habit, however, can only come about with practice.

Practice forms habit. The two go hand in hand. We have to practice our faith in order to allow it to work its way into every aspect of our lives, or we will end up like the accursed do and allow not doing to become our habit. Doing nothing, after all, is the easiest habit to form. It is called sloth.

Some people have taken what Paul said about Justification by faith and twisted it a little too much. We need to understand that Paul was saying that we’re justified by faith, not works of the Jewish Law. He never wrote against the loving, mercy-giving, and justice-seeking works we Christians ought to be doing. If he had, he would have been teaching something in direct opposition to Jesus.

Paul was saying that circumcision, sacrifice, and dietary customs—some of the concerns of the Law of Moses—will not save you. Sometimes we fail to make this distinction between those specific works of the Law and works of love, mercy, and justice. It’s not unheard of for Christians to accept a lazy theology in which we think that because we believe in Jesus and have faith we’re all set. Anyone who falls into this kind of thinking misses the point of being a Christian: serving God through being servants of each other and the world, loving God and neighbor. Our faith is missional by design.

After Jesus washed the feet of the disciples he commanded them to wash each others’ feet. When Paul wrote down those words about how we’re justified by grace through faith in his Epistles to the Galatians and the Romans, he wasn’t sitting on his couch. He was out ministering to an empire! Paul went on three missionary journeys that we know about as Luke recorded in The Acts of the Apostles. He traveled almost Ten Thousand miles preaching the Gospel throughout Asia Minor, Greece, Cyprus, and Italy. He mentioned in one of his letters that he would like to go to Spain to preach Christ there.

Paul’s the one who said, “I’m in trouble if I don’t preach the Gospel,” (1 Corinthians 9:16b CEB). He knew that if he wasn’t living out his faith in what God had commanded of him then he wasn’t living. This is why James wrote, “As the lifeless body is dead, so faith without actions is dead,” (Jas. 2:26 CEB). Or as the late Rich Mullins once wrote, “faith without works is like a song you can’t sing… it’s about as useless as a screen door on a submarine.”

Our faith grows and is built up not by saying ‘I believe,’ but by what we do with the Gospel, this rich treasure that God has given us. Faith grows out of our experience. Saying ‘I believe’ is only the beginning of faith, not the end. If we have faith in Jesus Christ our actions should be those that please and honor God—by doing no harm, doing good, acting out of love and charity, working for the sake of mercy and justice. It’s when we do these things that we’re proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ in our actions.

Jesus Christ tells us, in no uncertain terms, that he identifies himself with the poor. Christ places himself among the least, the poor, the marginalized, the needy, and the oppressed, even prisoners justly convicted of crimes. In other words, we should recognize Christ in people who are on the fringes of society because that’s one place where Christ, undoubtedly, is.

We see this throughout the Gospels as Jesus touches the untouchables, loves the unloved, and gives hope to the hopeless. Jesus came into this world as a poor Jew. He lived among the poor and oppressed every day. He suffered among them. He was judged by them. He shared in their pain and agonies. In Matthew 25 Jesus says, “I assure you that when you have done it for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you have done it for me,” (Matt. 25:40 CEB).

What we do to and for others is what we do to Christ because Jesus identifies with each one of us, and especially with the poor. In the same way, when we fail to do for others, we fail to do for Christ.

How different would the world be if every time we saw a person we recognized Jesus in that person? How would the world be different if every professed Christian saw his or her Lord in the face of every person they encountered in their every day? “Lord, when did we see you?” “Then the king will reply to them, ‘I assure you that when you have done it for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you have done it for me.’” (Matt. 25:40 CEB). This is what it means to be a follower of Jesus.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

The Valuable Coins | Proper 28

Matthew 25:14-30

14 “The kingdom of heaven is like a man who was leaving on a trip. He called his servants and handed his possessions over to them. 15 To one he gave five valuable coins, and to another he gave two, and to another he gave one. He gave to each servant according to that servant’s ability. Then he left on his journey.

16 “After the man left, the servant who had five valuable coins took them and went to work doing business with them. He gained five more. 17 In the same way, the one who had two valuable coins gained two more. 18 But the servant who had received the one valuable coin dug a hole in the ground and buried his master’s money.

19 “Now after a long time the master of those servants returned and settled accounts with them. 20 The one who had received five valuable coins came forward with five additional coins. He said, ‘Master, you gave me five valuable coins. Look, I’ve gained five more.’

21 “His master replied, ‘Excellent! You are a good and faithful servant! You’ve been faithful over a little. I’ll put you in charge of much. Come, celebrate with me.’

22 “The second servant also came forward and said, ‘Master, you gave me two valuable coins. Look, I’ve gained two more.’

23 “His master replied, ‘Well done! You are a good and faithful servant. You’ve been faithful over a little. I’ll put you in charge of much. Come, celebrate with me.’

24 “Now the one who had received one valuable coin came and said, ‘Master, I knew that you are a hard man. You harvest grain where you haven’t sown. You gather crops where you haven’t spread seed. 25 So I was afraid. And I hid my valuable coin in the ground. Here, you have what’s yours.’

26 “His master replied, ‘You evil and lazy servant! You knew that I harvest grain where I haven’t sown and that I gather crops where I haven’t spread seed? 27 In that case, you should have turned my money over to the bankers so that when I returned, you could give me what belonged to me with interest. 28 Therefore, take from him the valuable coin and give it to the one who has ten coins. 29 Those who have much will receive more, and they will have more than they need. But as for those who don’t have much, even the little bit they have will be taken away from them. 30 Now take the worthless servant and throw him outside into the darkness.’

“People there will be weeping and grinding their teeth. (CEB)

The Valuable Coins

This is the third of the four advent parables in Matthew. This parable, like the previous ones, also emphasizes in its own way the delay of the Kingdom of God. Jesus really wanted people to understand that, while the kingdom of God is indeed coming, the time of its arrival is completely unknown to us. We, therefore, need to be ready for it to come immediately, but also be prepared for the possibility of delay.

It is important to note that the valuable coins, often translated as a talent, is a very large sum of money: about fifteen years’ wages for a typical worker. It is perhaps unfortunate that it’s been called a talent for so long, because it tempts us to confuse this with the ordinary definition of talent and leads to a common misinterpretation of this parable.

Often times, this parable is taken as an encouragement to discover what gifts and talents we all have, and to use them for God. Taken this way, the parable teaches that everybody has a talent; some have many, others have a few, but all of us have at least one. Maybe one’s talent is playing the piano, or perhaps it’s the gift of hospitality or the skill of organization, or playing quarterback, or point guard. Regardless of how many talents we may have, and whatever those talents may be, God wants us to use them wisely and not waste them. So goes the conventional interpretation.

There is, of course, nothing wrong with the idea of using our talents to glorify God. Indeed, we ought to use our God-given talents in that way. But that idea alone is much too tame for this parable. The parable is not a gentle tale about what Christians should do with our individual gifts and talents, as helpful as that may be. Really, it’s a disturbing story about what Christians do or do not do with the gospel—the Good News of Jesus Christ—as they wait for the coming of the Kingdom of Heaven.

The first two servants are called “good and trustworthy” because they set out immediately to work with the treasure entrusted to them. In the context of Matthew’s Gospel, this treasure is the gospel—the teachings of Jesus—and these two “good and faithful” servants symbolize all wise and faithful disciples who hear Jesus’ words and act on them. The third servant is called “evil and lazy” because he’s a living embodiment of Jesus’ warning that “everybody who hears these words of mine and doesn’t put them into practice will be like a fool who built his house on sand,” (Matthew 7:26).

The reason it’s good and faithful to act on the gospel is not simply that Jesus said so and the disciples need to learn to be obedient and to follow orders. Living out the truth of the Gospel—living lives of mercy, peace, and forgiveness—is wise because the future belongs to God. Mercy, peace, and forgiveness are the values of God’s kingdom. The master will return. The promised Kingdom is coming. And its advent will render all the false values of this age—the accumulation of power, wealth, status, and possessions—obsolete.

Sometimes we look back on the anger, the harshness, the indifference toward others in our past and say, if I had only known then what I know now, I wouldn’t have done that. I wouldn’t have treated anyone like that. One purpose of this parable is to say that we can know now what we will know in the future. What will stand at the end is the gospel. One might call it true wisdom to live out God’s future, today.

So, the parable is about wise and foolish disciples—those who live the gospel now, and those who don’t. But the parable also cuts in another direction. It is not only a story about the moral character of disciples, but also about the moral character of God. What kind of God do we serve? The voice of the one-talent servant is trembling and full of fear: “Master, I knew that you are a hard man. You harvest grain where you haven’t sown. You gather crops where you haven’t spread seed. So I was afraid,” (Matt. 25:24-25 CEB).

The thing is, at this point in the parable there is no basis whatsoever for this kind of depiction of the master. Quite to the contrary, the master has entrusted his servants with vast sums of money, not just for a night or two but for an extended period of time. Moreover, in a culture where servants were expected to do their duty without receiving praise, pats on the back, brass plaques, or trophies, this master astonishingly gives them extravagant tribute, increased authority, and apparently, with the words, “Come celebrate with me,” he welcomes them into his home as members of the family. There’s even the implication that he lets them keep the money entrusted to them along with all the profits they made.

In other words, everything in the story leads us to see the master as an extraordinary person—trusting, welcoming, generous, and benevolent. That’s the way the first two servants view him, otherwise they wouldn’t have been so free to risk and act, and that’s the way the master conducts himself. Clearly the one-talent servant has badly misjudged the master, distorting the master into a tough, uncaring tyrant, and has acted accordingly.

When the master finds out that this servant has buried the money entrusted to him and why, the master responds, “You knew that I harvest grain where I haven’t sown and that I gather crops where I haven’t spread seed? In that case, you should have turned my money over to the bankers so that when I returned, you could give me what belonged to me with interest,” (Matt. 25:26-27 CEB). This reply exposes the one-talent servant even more. Even if the one-talent servant missed all the trust, joy, and generosity in his master, he could still have done a little low-risk investing.

However, the man’s problem with the master goes deeper. He viewed the master as evil, not just tough. In this servant’s twisted mind, the master is so pernicious that there’s no room whatsoever for freedom or responsible action; only paralysis. He’s so afraid of this terrible master that the only choice left to him is to shove the talent back as soon as possible and have nothing to do with this master that he perceives as a spiteful tyrant.

We may know people like this. I remember that one of my fraternity brothers thought God was out to get him. He thought God was some big ogre in the sky who was trying to send everyone to hell. I don’t know that I ever convinced him otherwise, but I sure tried to talk about the loving God that I know whenever he would listen.

The tragic news of this parable is that the one-talent servant pronounces his own judgment. He gets the master he believes he serves; he gets only the master his tiny and warped vision can see. In theological terms, he gets the peevish little tyrant god he believes in.

The story is not about a generous master suddenly turning cruel and punitive; it’s about living with the consequences of one’s own faith. If we trust the goodness of God, we can boldly venture out with eyes wide open to the wonder of grace in our life, we can discover the joy of God’s providence everywhere. But to be the child of a generous, gracious, and life-giving God and, despite this, to insist upon viewing God as oppressive, cruel, and fear-provoking, is to live a life that is tragically impoverished.

There is a kind of theological economy at work here. For those people who live in the confidence that God is trustworthy and generous, they find more and more of that generosity everywhere they look; but for those who run and hide under the bed from a bad, mean, and scolding God, they condemn themselves to a life spent under the bed alone, quivering in needless fear. Verse 29 sums up the whole parable, “Those who have much will receive more, and they will have more than they need. But as for those who don’t have much, even the little bit they have will be taken away from them,” (CEB).

God is a God of deep love, generous beyond measure. We’ve been given a Gospel—Good News—about salvation through Jesus Christ. This isn’t something we bury in the ground, but something we shout from the mountain tops. God has given us a great treasure—God’s only Son—so we could be redeemed from the power of sin and live forever with God. It’s something we ought to joyously celebrate and share with everyone we know.

When our master returns, what will we have to say? Will we dig up our talent and say, I didn’t want to bother with all this, here’s your gift back. Or will we say, Here’s what you have given me, and I’ve made this much more!

We don’t know when our master will return, and it’s not our job to worry about the timing of Jesus’ Second Advent. The kingdom may come before our worship service is finished, or it may not come until my great-great-grandchildren are all in their 90s. Our job isn’t to worry about when. Our job is to work for God’s kingdom until the master returns and we finally see our trusting, welcoming, generous, and benevolent master face-to-face.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

~Pastopher

The Day of the Lord | Proper 27

Amos 5:18-24

18 Doom to those who desire the day of the LORD! Why do you want the day of the LORD? It is darkness, not light; 19 as if someone fled from a lion, and was met by a bear; or sought refuge in a house, rested a hand against the wall, and was bitten by a snake. 20 Isn’t the day of the LORD darkness, not light; all dark with no brightness in it?

21 I hate, I reject your festivals; I don’t enjoy your joyous assemblies. 22 If you bring me your entirely burned offerings and gifts of food– I won’t be pleased; I won’t even look at your offerings of well-fed animals. 23 Take away the noise of your songs; I won’t listen to the melody of your harps.

24 But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. (CEB)

The Day of the Lord

I took Old Testament Prophets with Dr. Louis Stulman at The University of Findlay, and Amos was the first book we covered. When I tell people that Amos is one of my favorite books of the Bible, it’s passages like this one that might make them ask, “Why?”

For one thing, I like the guy’s style. The dude can preach. He doesn’t care if the message is unpopular, when God gives him something to say, he says it without holding back. And, Amos has the coolest similes and metaphors: “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”

For another, Amos has a way of irritating us that can’t be denied. Jesus had the same habit of irritating people. The problem with religious people is that, little by little, we forget the enthusiasm we once had and slip into various degrees of apathy. If Amos’s words do annoy us, it should give us pause to consider whether we’ve come to accept that apathy as normal and okay.

Honestly, apathy needs a little irritating. Sometimes we need to hear a challenge to our comfortable status quo, or have our feathers ruffled, or get our underwear in a twist. If we need a spiritual wedgie, Amos is ready to provide. If the kingdom of God is to come, then God’s people need to hear Amos’s challenge and get busy.

Let me tell you a little about Amos. He was a street preacher. He was a shepherd and trimmer of sycamore trees who went from his home of Tekoa, probably the one in Judah, to the capital of Israel to tell them they were worshipping and living wrong. For some perspective, we might appreciate that about as much as a migrant agricultural worker from Mexico traveling to Washington D.C. to tell the American people off. To get the people’s attention, he started out by preaching against all of Israel’s enemies, even his homeland of Judah. You can almost hear the people saying, Yeah! God’s gonna bring the hammer on ‘em.

Then, suddenly, Amos turned on Israel. And he kept going for seven more chapters. It was a scathing indictment, but Amos had their attention. In fact, Amos 5 begins this way: “Hear this word—a funeral song—that I am lifting up against you, house of Israel:” (Amos 5:1 CEB). This is doom and gloom. This is apocalypse. And Amos voices the rage of God against a people who should have known better.

The Kingdom of Israel broke away from Judah and the kings of David’s line because of Solomon’s corruption. For a wise guy, he did some really stupid things, and God told Jeroboam that he would take ten tribes from Solomon’s son, Rehoboam, and give them to Jeroboam because the people had abandoned God under Solomon’s reign (c.f. 1 kings 11:26-39). They broke away from Judah so they could be faithful to God. They rejected Solomon’s innovation of worshipping only in the Jerusalem Temple for the older shrines of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Samuel, Elijah, and Elisha at Bethel, Gilgal, and Beer-Sheba (c.f. Amos 5:4-6).

Roughly 170 years after they broke away, Israel had slipped into unfaithfulness and apathy for what’s right. Prosperity and comfort can do that to people. The wealthy had grown wealthier, and the poor had grown poorer. The Kingdom of Israel was at the height of its prosperity and power. The King at the time of Amos’s preaching, Jeroboam II, had pushed the boundaries of the kingdom out to an extent larger than any previous king. By some standards, the kingdom was doing well. They projected a sense of power. King Jeroboam II had made Israel great again.

At the same time, the people were not living out God’s expectations for justice and righteousness. Amos points out that Israel has done things like selling the innocent for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals, crushing the heads of the poor into the dust of the earth, and pushing the afflicted out of the way. They’d also turned to some business practices that God had outlawed, (c.f. Amos 2:6-8). The wealthy had built lavish summer houses and winter houses with beds of ivory by cheating the weak and crushing the needy (c.f. Amos 3:15-4:1). They’d corrupted the judges against justice, crushed the weak, taxed their grain and used the proceeds to build houses of stone. They’d afflicted the righteous, taken money on the side, and turned away the poor who were seeking help (c.f. Amos 5:10-12).

It’s this lack of justice and righteousness on the part of a people who are supposed to be holy that has the God who made the Pleiades and Orion seething with anger. The people who think they want the Day of the Lord to come might want to get their act together first. The people of Israel likely assumed the Day of the Lord would mean victory for them over every enemy. When God comes in judgment, that judgment will be inescapable. The people seemed to assume that they had nothing to fear on such a day because they were on God’s side.

God, however, seemed to have a different idea. Another prophet, Joel, described the Day of the Lord this way: “Blow the horn in Zion; give a shout on my holy mountain! Let all the people of the land tremble, for the day of the LORD is coming. It is near—a day of darkness and no light, a day of clouds and thick darkness! Like blackness spread out upon the mountains, a great and powerful army comes, unlike any that has ever come before them, or will come after them in centuries ahead. In front of them a fire consumes; and behind them a flame burns. Land ahead of them is like Eden’s garden, but they leave behind them a barren wasteland; nothing escapes them,” (Joel 2:1-3 CEB). Joel presents this army as coming for Israel, too. But he also tells them that the people can return to God and live because God is merciful, compassionate, patient, faithful, loving, and ready to forgive (c.f. Joel 2:13).

Joel and Amos both suggest that God is going to judge the world fairly and, whether we’re a part of God’s chosen people or not, our actions of justice and righteousness are what matter to God. If we’re on the wrong side of that, we should expect darkness, not light; gloom and not brightness. We can run, but we’ll be caught. Like a person who fled from a lion only to be met by a bear, or like a person who fled into the safety of a house and rested against the wall only to be bitten by a snake.

Then, Amos tears into Israel’s worship. God says, “I hate, I reject your festivals; I don’t enjoy your joyous assemblies. If you bring me your entirely burned offerings and gifts of food—I won’t be pleased; I won’t even look at your offerings of well-fed animals. Take away the noise of your songs; I won’t listen to the melody of your harps,” (Amos 5:21-23 CEB).

These festivals included the three annual pilgrimage feasts of Unleavened Bread, Weeks, and Harvest mentioned in Exodus 23, Exodus 34, and Deuteronomy 16. The joyous assemblies are the times of festival and breaks from regular work so the people can celebrate and worship God as mentioned in 2 Kings 10:20 and Isaiah 1:13. The offerings of the people no longer please God, and every kind of traditional offering is rejected: the whole burnt offering, the grain offering, and the peace or well-being offering. God even refuses to listen to singing and harp-playing. The Hebrew word used here is the title for the Book of Psalms. God doesn’t want to hear the hymnbook of the Scriptures! And the question is, why?

Earlier in the chapter, Amos mentions three ancient sanctuaries: Bethel, Gilgal, and Beer-Sheba. Bethel was the site of Abraham’s altar, Jacob’s ladder, it’s where the matriarch Rachel died. It’s where Deborah sat as a Judge, prophet, and administrator over Israel. It’s where Saul went to seek the Prophet Samuel.

Gilgal was where Joshua parted the waters of the Jordan so the people could cross over into the Promised Land. It’s where Samuel had abandoned Saul as king over Israel in favor of David. It’s where Elisha turned poisonous gourds into something edible. Beer-Sheba was where Hagar had her second theophany (Genesis 21:14-20). It’s the site of Abraham’s well and Jacob’s altar. It was where Elijah hid from Jezebel.

These are holy places to Israel. Significant places in the history and life of the people. It almost sounds like God is rejecting Israel’s worship as a whole. But a complete rejection of worship is not the case here. We have to look at the whole of Amos’s message to understand why God has gotten so angry. All those things I mentioned earlier about Amos’s message: cheating, selling, crushing, and pushing away the poor, the needy, and the afflicted tell us that, although the people participated in the correct liturgies, sang their favorite hymns, participated in all the wonderful holy days, and gathered together every Sabbath to worship, that worship didn’t affect how they lived.

In other sermons, I’ve preached about how our worship of God is more than gathering together in this building. Our worship of God is also how we live our everyday lives outside of these walls. How we treat others is our worship of God. What we give to others is our worship of God. How we speak about others is our worship of God. Our everyday actions reflect our worship of God.

At the same time, our worship of God, here, is supposed to shape and influence our everyday actions so that what we do, what we think, what we say, are holy and righteous and just. If it doesn’t… If our worship doesn’t shape and influence us so that we speak and act like God’s people in our everyday, then what’s the point? If we don’t offer ourselves to God when we come here, if we don’t seek a change of heart and mind for ourselves so that we can live according to God’s ways, then we aren’t worshipping as we ought. It’s at that point that coming to this place is pointless.

And, to be clear, any lack of being shaped or changed or influenced to righteousness is not something we can blame on the preacher or the choir or the liturgy or the hymns. Worship in this place is what we, ourselves, give to God. The question we may need to ask is, are we really giving ourselves? The difficulty with any living sacrifice is that, no matter how many times we throw ourselves on the altar, our tendency is try and crawl off before our lives are no longer our own.

Yet, it’s when we give ourselves to God that we worship as we ought because our life, itself, becomes worship. That’s when we live in such a way that justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. God wants our actions to be righteous. God wants us to seek justice for those who need it. Our relationships need to be set right.

Amos reminds us that, as much as God loves us–as deeply as God loves us–God also expects certain things from us. In fact, I would argue that God loves us so much that God will not let us ignore justice and righteousness without saying something about it. God speaks strong truth when it needs to be spoken so that we can turn back to God and live lives that are holy, righteous, and just. That’s why Amos preached this stuff. If God didn’t love us, then God probably wouldn’t bother. I would argue that the fact that God speaks these difficult words to us is proof that God does love us.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

~Rev. Christopher Millay

God’s Children | All Saints’

1 John 3:1-3

1 See what kind of love the Father has given to us in that we should be called God’s children, and that is what we are! Because the world didn’t recognize him, it doesn’t recognize us. 2 Dear friends, now we are God’s children, and it hasn’t yet appeared what we will be. We know that when he appears we will be like him because we’ll see him as he is. 3 And everyone who has this hope in him purifies himself even as he is pure. (CEB)

God’s Children

Anyone who’s ever been to a United Methodist funeral service might recognize part of this text. It’s included in the liturgy for services of death and resurrection. One of the reasons for that inclusion is the fact that these words from First John remind us both of our present reality and that there’s more to come. In one sense, on All Saints’ Sunday, we remember those faithful children of God who have crossed over the great divide and now stand before the throne of God as we await the resurrection. At the same time, this is a day where we renew our call to holy living because we are children of God and we anticipate the day of resurrection.

This gift of being called God’s children comes to us, first and foremost, because God loves us. John says, “See what kind of love the Father has given to us in that we should be called God’s children,” (1 Jn. 3:1 CEB). The idea that human beings could be called God’s children goes back to the Old Testament. There are references to the whole people of Israel being described as a child of God. Hosea 11:1 says, “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son,” (CEB). Deuteronomy 32:18 speaks of Israel’s divine birth when it says: “You deserted the rock that sired you; you forgot the God who gave birth to you!” (CEB).

Then, texts like Jeremiah 31:9 speak of God’s relationship to Israel as a father: “With tears of joy they will come; while they pray, I will bring them back. I will lead them by quiet streams and on smooth paths so they don’t stumble. I will be Israel’s father, Ephraim will be my oldest child.” (CEB).

There are two important things to note about this idea of Israel being God’s child. First, it’s a covenantal relationship. Second, because it is a covenantal relationship, Israel must live as if they are God’s child. As any child can tell you, the real bummer about parents is that they have expectations. Parents demand certain kinds of behavior. Sometimes, they don’t let the child do whatever the child wants to do. When the child acts in ways contrary to the expectations of the parent, there are consequences that the child probably won’t enjoy.

For example: when I catch my children playing Minecraft on their Kindles at 10:00 p.m. while hiding under the covers, that Kindle belongs to me until I decide to give it back. When I find Halloween candy wrappers on the floor instead of in the trash can where they belong, the candy and the Kindles are mine until I decide to give them back. You see, we parents know what our kids value, which means we know how to motivate good behavior in our children by taking away the things they value. It doesn’t always work, especially when children forget that we have that parental power, but all it usually takes is a gentle reminder.

The stress on that covenantal requirement of living as a child of God brought about the idea that not every Israelite was worthy of the name, child of God, just because they were Israelites by blood. What began to matter more was how each person walked with God. It’s an idea that Jesus likely held when he said that God could raise up children of Abraham from the stones on the ground (Matthew 3:9, Luke 3:8). One’s ancestry mattered less than one’s ethic: how you live, how you speak, what you do.

In Christian writings, such as the Gospel of John, the matter of who is included under that title children of God was broadened. It wasn’t only Israel, nor was it only faithful Jews, but everyone for whom Christ died (John 11:52). Since we believe in a universal atonement, that Christ died for all, it means that everyone is a child of God because of God’s great love for each one of us, and everyone has the potential to live as such by walking in God’s ways. Both the giftedness of the designation and the ethic of living it out still have to be held together.

John insists that we are God’s children. But there’s also the admission that those outside of the church, the world, doesn’t readily recognize this designation in us or in themselves. How can the world recognize anyone as a child of God if they don’t know God? These words imply that our ethic of walking as children of God—of living out the love, mercy-giving, and justice-seeking of God—has a missional aspect to it. Ours is the responsibility to share this very Good News. If we’re living out the love of God and love of neighbor as we ought, then we are bringing the Good News to the world and inviting others to be a part of it by our action.

John repeats his insistence about our designation by saying, “Dear friends, now we are God’s children,” in verse 2. But he also adds an element of mystery to it by saying, “and it hasn’t yet appeared what we will be. We know that when he appears we will be like him because we’ll see him as he is,” (1 John 3:2 CEB).

Christians have long speculated about what the “will be” will be. Several modern scholars insist that John cannot mean that we’ll become like God. But that idea wasn’t a problem for scholars and saints of ages past. Some of them, like Saint Ireneus of Lyon who lived in the 2nd century, and Saint Athanasius of Alexandria who lived during the 3rd and 4th centuries A.D., spoke of a future deification (θεοποιήσθαι) in which we are made like God.

Ireneus said that God had become what we are, that he might bring us to be even what he is himself.” Athanasius went even further by saying, “God became human so that humans might become God.” The idea is that God made us to ultimately dwell fully in the fullness of God. Medieval scholars like Saint Thomas Aquinas suspected we will experience a kind of beatific vision that would allow us to see God’s essence.

In the theology of Eastern Christianity, they teach something called theosis, becoming like God, is very much in line with the teachings of Ireneus and Athanasius. Theosis is the goal of the Christian life: to become like God.

Then, there’s some Biblical evidence that suggests something along those lines. After all, the temptation of the serpent in Genesis 3:5 was, “You won’t die! God knows that on the day you eat from it, you will see clearly and you will be like God, knowing good and evil,” (Genesis 3:4-5 CEB). The thing is, we don’t know whether this kind of being like God was outside of God’s plan for the human race, or if the way Adam and Eve lived in the Garden when they fell was only temporary as part of a trial period before coming into the full inheritance God had in mind for them. C.S. Lewis seems to have thought along these lines, too, since he wrote about the idea of a trial period in his book Perelandra.

The hymn in Philippians 2:6-11 says this of Christ, “Though he was in the form of God, he did not consider being equal with God something to exploit. But he emptied himself by taking the form of a slave and by becoming like human beings. When he found himself in the form of a human, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore, God highly honored him and gave him a name above all names, so that at the name of Jesus everyone in heaven, on earth, and under the earth might bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father,” (CEB).

If we look at the hymn as a contrast between Adam & Eve and Jesus Christ, it suggests that, because of Christ’s obedience to God and ensuing crucifixion, he was exalted and given the name that Adam and Eve did not receive because of their disobedience and fall.

In Methodism, we have similar theology to theosis in John Wesley’s ideas of Sanctification and Christian Perfection. We believe that the purpose of every Christian life is to more perfectly reflect the image of God in our lives. It’s not something we accomplish on our own but, by God’s grace, we hope to grow more like God every day.

We have to live into God’s grace, and we do that in very practical ways: by doing no harm, by doing good, and by attending to the ordinances of God which are the means of grace (baptism, Holy Communion, worship, prayer, Bible study, fasting and abstinence, and Christian conferencing, to name a few). It’s not only who we are and what we believe, but the ethic of how we live that makes us children of God.

As much as Christian Biblical writers and theologians have speculated, we don’t know exactly what “will be.” What we do know is that whatever form that glorious thing called resurrection to eternal life looks like, we’ll be like Jesus, and we’ll see Jesus as he is. It’s not unlike Paul’s idea in 1 Corinthians 13: “Now we see a reflection in a mirror; then we will see face-to-face. Now I know partially, but then I will know completely in the same way that I have been completely known,” (1 Corinthians 13:12 CEB).

John sums all of this up with the word hope which, in the Greek sense, includes a nuance of having confidence that it will be fulfilled. Those who have this hope in Christ, this confidence that we are children of God now and that we will be in the future, purify themselves as God is pure. That purification also comes to us as a gift from God. Christians don’t live out our faith in a system of rewards, but we live with the confidence that God continues to love us with a love we didn’t earn. “See what kind of love the Father has given to us in that we should be called God’s children,” (1 John 3:1 CEB).

Our response to God’s love for us is to share the love of God with our neighbors across the world. The world needs us to live that love. It’s a rough, tormented, hurting place, so we walk in the ways of God as those who have gone before us have done. In so doing, we hold God before the eyes of the world so the world, too, can know the love God has for them, and the world can come to know that they, too, are God’s beloved children.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

Rev. Christopher Millay

As Yourself | Proper 25

Leviticus 19:1-2, 15-18

1 The LORD said to Moses, 2 Say to the whole community of the Israelites: You must be holy, because I, the LORD your God, am holy.

15 You must not act unjustly in a legal case. Do not show favoritism to the poor or deference to the great; you must judge your fellow Israelites fairly. 16 Do not go around slandering your people. Do not stand by while your neighbor’s blood is shed; I am the LORD. 17 You must not hate your fellow Israelite in your heart. Rebuke your fellow Israelite strongly, so you don’t become responsible for his sin. 18 You must not take revenge nor hold a grudge against any of your people; instead, you must love your neighbor as yourself; I am the LORD. (CEB)

As Yourself

Leviticus isn’t a book we come across very often in the lectionary. It’s only used twice and, both times, it’s nearly the same text. The only other instance adds verses 9-14 to what we just read. I mean, we read the book of Numbers more than Leviticus (a grand total of 3 times in the regular weekly lections), and that’s the book that most people find downright impossible. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard people say, Well, I tried to read the Bible all the way through, but I got stuck at Numbers. Yet, the lectionary includes it more than Leviticus.

Part of our problem with Leviticus might be that it’s a very Jewish book. It’s full of stuff about the Law that some Christians view as mostly irrelevant, save for one or two specific proof-texts they might jump to. We like the prophets but, aside from the Ten Commandments, we Christians don’t typically care much for the law. And by that, I mean we don’t often read it or engage with it.

Yet, the Law is incredibly relevant. Any interpreter of the New Testament has to know the Law. Otherwise, they’ll miss the point of most of what’s said in the New Testament. Every Christian knows the words of Jesus, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” (Matthew 19:19; 22:39) but he didn’t come up with it on his own. He got it from Leviticus 19. So did Paul, when he quoted those words in Romans 13:9, and Galatians 5:4. So did James, when he quoted them in James 2:8.

Leviticus 19 is part of what’s called the Holiness Code that was written for all the people of Israel, not just the priests. God tells Moses, “Say to the whole community of the Israelites: You must be holy, because I, the LORD your God, am holy” (Lev. 19:2 CEB). So, what does a holy life require? What does it look like? How do we define it?

There are, actually, a couple of options. Both are found in the Scriptures. The first option focuses on maintaining purity. It means we keep ourselves separate from the things that might pollute, whether it has to do with mud and blood, death and decay, or things that get in the way of proper ritual and the rites of religious life. This pollution can affect individuals and, then, pollute our community, so we have to keep it away from us. Holiness, defined this way, depends on fencing others out, keeping apart from those whose ways are judged less than holy, or simply whose being is judged less than holy.

This is the path of Ezra, who dissolved all the marriages of Israelite men to foreign women and made them send their foreign wives and the children born of them away (c.f. Ezra 10). They thought they could be holy again by getting rid of everything foreign that might pollute their people. Nehemiah did the same thing.

He says of those who married foreign women: “Half of their children spoke the language of Ashdod or the language of various peoples; they couldn’t speak the language of Judah. So I scolded them and cursed them, and beat some of them, and pulled out their hair.” Sounds like a super swell guy, right? “I also made them swear a solemn pledge in the name of God, saying, ‘You won’t give your daughters to their sons in marriage, or take their daughters in marriage for your sons or yourselves. Didn’t Israel’s King Solomon sin on account of such women? Among the many nations there was no king like him. He was well loved by his God, and God made him king over all Israel. Yet foreign wives led even him into sin!’” (Neh. 13:24-26 CEB).

So, pulling a page out of Adam and Eve, Nehemiah blames the women for the fact that men chose to sin. (It honestly makes me roll my eyes every time). The idea was that, if they could separate themselves from the influence of foreign religions, practices, languages, and gods, then they would not be tempted to sin in the first place, therefore, they wouldn’t sin at all.

The second option for holiness focuses on crossing those very same boundaries that set people apart. It involves placing ourselves in the middle of the messiness so that we can call out unjust power structures, work to set wrongs to right, work at building deeply true relationships with those we consider “other,” and moving toward a right relationship with God. This is the path of Leviticus 19, which links holiness with seeking justice and demanding that we love our neighbor as our self.

It’s the path of Jesus who ate with publicly-known sinners, from tax-collectors to prostitutes. He called out the injustices of the religious power structures of his day. He stepped across the lines that those religious leaders and power brokers had so carefully constructed. And, instead of fencing out the marginalized, the rejected, the known sinners, the poor, the suffering, and the sick; Jesus went to them, healed them, accepted them, loved them, and made sure they knew that they were loved by God. In doing so, Jesus offered them the kingdom of Heaven.

Holiness is a word that properly defines God. God is holy, which means that God is many of the things mentioned about that first option of how to live out holiness. God is set apart. God is other, different. That’s why many Jews and Christians have walked the path of holiness that fences out what is impure or different from them.

But, the thing about God is that, when we try to neatly define what we think words like holiness should mean, God comes along and blurs those definitions until they break down, and are redefined to reflect what God actually means by them. In fact, eventually, God showed us God’s definition of holiness with something called the Incarnation. When it comes to holiness as God means it, it has nothing to do with staying separate.

God chose to be Immanuel: God With Us. God became a human being in the incarnation when the Son of God took on human flesh, was conceived, and born of a young Jewish woman named Mary. God chose to cross the boundaries of what fenced out pollution and sin for the exact purpose of living in the messiness, and the violence, and the despair, and the suffering of our world. God came down from heaven to be with us, and to call out the injustices of abusive power, of rampant greed, and of definitions of holiness that are a good deal less than holy.

You see, another word that properly defines God is love. We cannot have holiness apart from love. Apart from love, nothing is holy. We must love our neighbors.

Now, some try to escape this demand of showing love to everyone by narrowing the definition of neighbor to mean one’s own people. The whole of Leviticus 19:18 says, “You must not take revenge nor hold a grudge against any of your people; instead, you must love your neighbor as yourself; I am the LORD,” (CEB).

So, if my neighbors are only my own people, then I only need to love people who look like me, believe like me, act like me, and think like me. That’s exactly the theology of white supremacists. And, I mention them because they exist and they’re getting more emboldened than they have been in a long time. It’s not something we can rightly ignore, or close our eyes and hope they’ll quietly slink back into their dark corner. They call themselves Christians. They love their neighbors as they define the word neighbor, which means white people. Clearly, they’ve never read Luke 10:25-37. That’s the parable of the Good Samaritan, where Jesus expands the word neighbor to mean even our enemies and those who hate us.

Later in Leviticus 19, at verse 34, God demands that Israelites grant equal citizenship to immigrants in their land, and says they must love the immigrants as themselves. The demand to love our neighbor has no boundary line where we can feel safe to stop. Our neighbor is every person on planet Earth. We have no excuse for not loving everyone. We have no excuse for hating anyone.

So, what does loving others look like?

In one sense, it means that we work to create communities where every one of our neighbors can thrive. We break down the social barriers. We break down the economic barriers. We break down the religious barriers. We break down every barrier which separates us from others, which fences them out from communion with us. We work to ensure that our neighbors can share more fully in the life of our community.

You see, the call to holiness is defined around community that is just. It means favoritism is not shown to anyone, judgments are fair, we don’t bad-mouth or slander our neighbors, we don’t stand by while our neighbors are mistreated, we don’t hold hate for others in our hearts, we don’t take revenge or hold grudges. Loving our neighbor means that we treat each of our neighbors as we want to be treated—essentially, we have to put ourselves in their position and consider them.

That’s the ultimate test case, don’t you think? Would we be willing to trade places with the least of our neighbors? Are we willing to trade places with the poorest in our community, the weakest, the most marginalized and frowned upon? If we would hesitate to do so, it’s a sure sign that all is not yet rightly ordered in our community. It’s proof-positive that we have more work to do. This is the work to which we’re called as the church of Jesus Christ.

We can’t really love God and, at the same time, fail to love our neighbor any more than we can love our neighbor without loving God. The two go together, which is why Jesus called them the greatest two commandments: love God, and love your neighbor as yourself (c.f. Matthew 22:37-40). In both the Old Testament and the New Testament, there is no way to live out the holiness of God without benefiting our neighbors. There is no way to be holy as God is holy without crossing boundaries to live in solidarity and build true community with our neighbors. The way of life for one includes a way of life for all.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

Rev. Christopher Millay

The Things That Are God’s | Proper 24

Matthew 22:15-22

15 Then the Pharisees met together to find a way to trap Jesus in his words. 16 They sent their disciples, along with the supporters of Herod, to him. “Teacher,” they said, “we know that you are genuine and that you teach God’s way as it really is. We know that you are not swayed by people’s opinions, because you don’t show favoritism. 17 So tell us what you think: Does the Law allow people to pay taxes to Caesar or not?”

18 Knowing their evil motives, Jesus replied, “Why do you test me, you hypocrites? 19 Show me the coin used to pay the tax.” And they brought him a denarion. 20 “Whose image and inscription is this?” he asked.

21 “Caesar’s,” they replied.

Then he said, “Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.” 22 When they heard this they were astonished, and they departed. (CEB)

The Things That Are God’s

I don’t know many people who like paying taxes. I mean, yes, we all benefit from what taxes provide, but I don’t know anyone who appreciates how much money the government wastes and misuses. There have been studies released on that waste, and it’s kind of ugly.

Personally, I think that if God only asks for 10 percent, what’s the government to demand more than the creator of the universe? And, why make them so complicated?

Have you ever seen clergy taxes? The federal government can’t decide what to do with us clergy. The IRS says we’re employees, so we get a W-2. But the Social Security Administration says we’re self-employed, which means we have to pay the full 15.3% of self-employment tax ourselves in quarterly installments. So, I’m an employee and I’m self-employed for doing the same job.

For Jews, paying taxes paid to Caesar was a theological problem. If they paid taxes, then they were essentially complicit in the activities of the pagan Roman government which had occupied and annexed their previously independent Hasmonean Kingdom in 63 BCE.

The team of Pharisees and Herodians who ask Jesus this first question is an unlikely alliance. The Herodians were a priestly group whose power base in Israel was founded largely on an alliance with the occupying Roman government. The Pharisees, by contrast, were a lay group within Judaism who tried to obey the Law of Moses to the letter.

For the Pharisees, compromising or partnering with the pagan Romans would have been theologically unthinkable. Only a mutual distaste for Jesus could have brought these two parties together in an attempt to trap and discredit someone they saw as mutually problematic.

The exchange begins with a bit of flattery, which functions as a setup for the trick question that follows. The effect of their praise is to say, Okay mister smarty-pants, let’s see what you do with this one. The question has to do with the religious legality of paying taxes to the Roman emperor. For a quarter of a century, the Jews had been forced to pay a head tax to the Roman government in Roman currency. Some Jews rested easy with Roman rule and supported the tax. This group of supporters was in the minority, and probably included the Herodians.

Most citizens of Judah, however, reacted to the idea of paying money to the pagan emperor with distaste ranging from mild provocation to seething insurrection. In fact, when the tax was established in A.D. 6, there was a small-scale armed revolt. Adding insult to injury was the fact that the tax, which amounted to a denarius, was most often paid with the common denarius coin. This coin was minted with the image of Caesar Tiberius and carried the inscription, “Tiberius Caesar, august son of the divine Augustus and high priest.”

The inscription, alone, was an offense to Jews who believed the Lord alone is God. Not to mention the fact that the coin had an image on it, which was quasi-forbidden within Judaism. So they had to pay a tax to their occupiers—the Romans—whom they hated, and they were forced to pay it with a Roman coin that claimed that the Roman Emperor was a god and high priest.

And the Romans wondered why that didn’t go over well.

So, to raise the question about paying taxes to the emperor was to pull the scab off of a political and theological wound, which is exactly what Jesus’ questioners did. “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” They intended to put Jesus into a precarious position.

If Jesus were to say, No, according to the Law of God it is not lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, then the Roman government would move in on him as a dangerous political agitator and enemy of the Roman State. Then again, if Jesus were to say, Yes, it is lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, then he would have lost all credibility with many of the people who paid the tax, but did so against their will because they saw the tax as an illegal act of an oppressor government and a moral affront to their religion.

This was a great question for the Pharisees and Herodians to ask because it seemed to be a perfect catch 22. They could discredit Jesus with either answer he gave. This was also an important question for the people to consider, and the people in the crowds were listening. What would Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth, say?

Jesus was aware of the intended treachery of his questioners, and he cleverly sidestepped their trap. First, he asked them to show him one of the tax coins, which means that he didn’t have one of the coins on his person, but at least one of his questioners did! (Brilliant move. First point goes to Jesus).

He asked, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” They replied, “Caesar’s.” And Jesus said, “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” In other words, Jesus says, The coin has Caesar’s image and inscription on it, so give the filthy thing back to Caesar.

There are two ways to understand Jesus’ statement: a mild way and a more radical way. The mild way interprets Jesus’ words to mean the tax is not the issue. You pay the tax with Roman coins, and they bear the emperor’s image and belong to the emperor. So give the emperor his little coins back and get on about the weightier issue of rendering your lives to God. The coin is created in the emperor’s image, but you are created in the image of God; so give the stupid little coin to the emperor, and give your whole self to the God who owns you.

The more radical way is that Jesus refuses to answer the question and actually turns the tables on his examiners, showing them up as two-faced hypocrites. The question they posed to Jesus was designed to allow Jesus two equally bad alternatives. In effect they ask Jesus, “Are you a foolish, uncompromising revolutionary whose allegiance to the kingdom of heaven is actually a political revolution in disguise, or are you a smooth-talking street preacher who stirs people up with persuasive speech of God’s majesty, but who underneath advocates a policy of “let’s just get along” with the Roman Gentile pigs?

Jesus responds to this trick question with a tricky maneuver of his own. When he asks them to show him a tax coin, they unsuspectingly reach into their own purses and withdraw the evidence that exposes them—not him—as deceptive and hypocritical compromisers with Rome. They are the ones carrying around Caesar’s money, not Jesus. They are the ones who have the emperor’s image in their pocketbooks. They are the ones who have already bought into the pagan system.

In this more radical interpretation, Jesus’ words mean, that everybody has to decide between Caesar and God. No one can serve two masters. The Pharisees and Herodians seem to have already made their decision by what they carried in their pockets. They had forged their convenient compromise between their duty to God and the Roman State. But what about their obligation to God? Jesus says, “Render to God what belongs to God.” Choose this day whom you will serve.

What Jesus suggests is that, although we may have to live under this or that Caesar, and we may have to pay this or that tax, we ourselves never belong to Caesar. We belong, body and soul, to the Living God, and we are to render to God what belongs to God’s. To render our lives to God means to give up our own will and desires for the will and desires of God. It means uncompromising obedience to the God who created us, and created all things.

Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and give to God the things that are God’s. What God desires is us, but we have to give ourselves to God through loving obedience. Part of the way we do that is by recognizing that we belong to God.

We define ourselves in many ways and are usually proud of those definitions. It’s usually pretty easy to spot a Cameron Crazy (a Duke Basketball fan, for those of you who aren’t sports nuts), and you’d better not mistake a Buckeye for a Wolverine unless you’ve got a death wish. People take pride in being American, Canadian, being British, German, Irish, or Polish. What do we think of as our most defining characteristic? Belonging to God is the only defining characteristic that really matters: not the color of our skin, not the work we do, not which city we’re from, not which state we’re from, not our national citizenship, not our level of education, not our annual income.

God is love, and God’s love is our most defining characteristic, both to ourselves and to others. There will come a day when all of humankind will stand before their God and creator, and the only characteristic that will matter at all will be that we belong to God. Once we recognize that we belong to God, we begin to recognize that everything we have belongs to God as well.

Give to God the things that belong to God. What does God want? All of us. Every last bit of every one of us.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

~Pastopher