Friday, September 16, 2011

Maybe it's not just about God's grace...thoughts on Matthew 20:1-16

This Sunday's Gospel reading is Matthew 20:1-16, the parable of the Workers in the Vineyard. Here are some thoughts and notes and further reflections...enjoy!

Here's the parable...

The Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard
1 “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. 2 He agreed to pay them a denarius[a] for the day and sent them into his vineyard.

3 “About nine in the morning he went out and saw others standing in the marketplace doing nothing. 4 He told them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ 5 So they went.

“He went out again about noon and about three in the afternoon and did the same thing. 6 About five in the afternoon he went out and found still others standing around. He asked them, ‘Why have you been standing here all day long doing nothing?’

7 “‘Because no one has hired us,’ they answered.

“He said to them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard.’

8 “When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the workers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and going on to the first.’

9 “The workers who were hired about five in the afternoon came and each received a denarius. 10 So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius. 11 When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner. 12 ‘These who were hired last worked only one hour,’ they said, ‘and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.’

13 “But he answered one of them, ‘I am not being unfair to you, friend. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? 14 Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you. 15 Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?’

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

Now for my thoughts, notes and reflections...

The setting...a time of high unemployment and a harvest of grapes that must be taken in or they will be lost.

Consider the pools of workers...which are most industrious...least industrious...6 -9-12pm-3-5

Denarius...normal day’s pay...v.4ff... “whatever is right”... would be understood to be less than a denarius

v.11-12...they have a right of complaint, but lack of formal address shows disrespect

v.13...gracious response ‘friend’...Matthew uses this word 3x in his gospel...each time the person addressed is in the wrong. Makes you think!

v.15...these 2 questions basis of parable...but I like the Greek behind the 2nd question...“Is your eye evil because I am good?”...we see things differently. Most certainly.

Two themes…
1.) a sense of grace… “because I am generous?”…the pay itself is not really all that generous…more the totally undeserving nature of the last people hired (they did no work) and the first people hired (they grumbled and were greedy)…so any pay is the result of grace/freely given love/generous nature not because of what anyone has done
2.) a sense of urgency… early, 3rd, 6th, 9th, 11th …the master goes out repeatedly to recruit workers into his vineyard. He never has enough…there is always more to do and the need for more people…“go and work”…the command is always the same…even in the 11th hour.

Do the same themes dominate our thinking as church and as individuals…urgency and grace??

Graciousness/acceptance in welcoming others into the kingdom of God and in accepting the grace, forgiveness and love of God for ourselves.

Urgency in proclaiming the saving knowledge of the Gospel of Jesus and doing the work of the kingdom.

But there is the temptation to over spiritualize this parable. Maybe this is also about the the Kingdom of Heaven that is found and lived in the hard realities of life on earth. Maybe it is about contentment...about 9 & 10 Commandment...about rejoicing with those who rejoice and weeping with those who weep...about decrying injustice done to others...about celebrating with those who outshine us...about denying ourselves (which includes our hopes and dreams and wishes and desires and plans)and being happy for those who find success, wealth, and public recognition in their earthly life.

A lot to think always.

Thursday, September 08, 2011

Calming the storm...

In 2001 the world in which we live began to change when a series of coordinated terrorist attacks took place in the US. On this 10th Anniversary of that day in September I am posting the sermon I preached the following Sunday entitled: 'Calming the Storm'.

Some thoughts on the WTC/Pentagon disaster.

Let me preface these remarks with the fact that I am an American and the events of the past week have hit home to me in a way that I could not have imagined. Secondly I have experienced first-hand the uncertainty of whether or not a family member or friend is still alive as our son’s godfather works in Washington DC with the US Navy and Flossie has a cousin who works in Manhattan only a block or so away from the WTC. It would be some 16 hours after the initial event before we were assured that this cousin was alive and well after having spent her day as part of the thousands of people evacuated from their offices and lost for hours.

So how could this happen…The Herald-Sun (a local paper for overseas readers) had a great headline…’They seemed such ordinary people’. How could this happen? Simply because the source of this evil…not race, politics, religion… but the heart of human beings. The Bible repeats this point over and over…a brief selection…Psalm 58:2…Matthew 15:18-20 out of the heart…Jeremiah 9:14 the stubbornness of their hearts…Ecclesiastes 9:3 madness in their hearts. A Lutheran Theologian in Germany after WW2 was asked if it were possible for another Hitler to one day rule Germany. He replied, “Yes, because I know the evil that dwells in me.” So as a Christian I need to recognize this simple fact…the ‘war’ (if you wish to call it that) is against sin...principalities…powers….none of which will succumb to military action.

A second question that came to mind for me….Where or what is the basis of faith...what do we trust...what is basis of our security as individuals, nation, world. The outpouring of grief and fear seems to indicate that by and large we look to Economic, military, political or simply the world we attempt to build around ourselves with family, friends, work, leisure as the basis of our faith. The events of the past week demonstrate quite clearly how transient these all are and how quickly the seemingly immovable and indestructible can be both moved and destroyed. In the stilling of the storm recorded in Mark 4:35-41 there is the call to faith. Jesus highlights that what your eye perceives and what you experience is not always basis of reality. Rather he calls his disciples and us to believe…to trust…in the certain hope…and promise that nothing can separate us from the love of God which is ours in Jesus Christ.

Now let’s get practical….some don’ts and do’s…the don’ts are fewer so I will start with those.

Do not assume/think/believe that anyone deserves violence done to their nation or person...not the US...not Afghanistan. I have read letters to the editors in the papers…read graffiti…heard the comments made to my sons at high school and TAFE…that America deserved this. Let me state categorically that no one…no nation…no individual…deserves to have violence done to their nation or person. This applies across the range of race, creed, colour, politics. For if we place ourselves in judgment over another that they deserve this or that, then we are setting ourselves up to be judged by God on the basis of the same standard and quite frankly I would rather face the wrath of a terrorist or a military power than the wrath of God. If I judge then I will be judged and before God without Christ I am toast.

Do not desire revenge. Vengeance is God’s arena, not ours and the trouble is that if we act out of vengeance we desert the moral high ground and lower ourselves to the level of the very people we are condemning. A New York firefighter put it so well when he highlighted that he did not have time to be angry or think of revenge as his first call was to search for survivors and get on with rebuilding the place. A good perspective to hold for all of us. The desire for revenge ultimately consumes the person who is seeking revenge for they allow the bitterness and angry to rule their life. Let us not fall into this trap either.

Do not condone racist behaviour against nationality, creed or colour. Sadly innocent Muslim communities around the world are now becoming the target of violence and reprisals. Now is the time to stand with these communities against this racial vilification. It is time to (quote Tony Blair here)’stand shoulder to shoulder’ with the Muslim communities around the world…not just the US. They are no happier about this sort of extremist behaviour than the US or its allies are.

Do not assume violence is the best/only response. We now have a chance to build new relationships with many of the Arab/Muslim countries who are appalled by this act of terrorism against the US. Why waste this opportunity to build new alliances on questionably effective military action against one individual which will simply make him more of a martyr for the extremist movements? I noticed that most of the Muslim countries do not see military action as the best solution. Is the US and its European allies falling into the trap of a Vietnam type experience again…if we throw enough money and enough military hardware against it that will solve the problem. I don’t think so.

So what can we do?

If there is a call to action it is found here in Romans 12:9-21 (please read it) This can be summarized with a single verse…

Overcome evil with good

How does this work out…a few examples…
• pray…for those who planned and committed the crime…for the victims and families…for government leaders of all nations…for presence and peace of God…pray for the terrorists and their families and their nations and their leaders that they would see the light of the loving God who does not demand their sacrifice, but has willingly sacrificed his Son that they might have life.
• condemn the criminal act…most certainly…but only the crime…not the individual
• seek those who have committed this crime…it is not only a right, but a responsibility.
• seek to bring them to justice…not just to justice…but we need to seek justice ‘for’ them as well. They also have rights under the law and if we do not do everything in our power to insure that these are preserved for them then we again desert the moral high ground and lower ourselves to the very level of activity that we are so busy condemning.
• insure that the response does not add to the cycle of violence. Violence creates more violence so let us work to insure that our response as individuals and as a nation does not continue this cycle, but breaks into the cycle with a different and better way of resolving the situation.
• in all things exercise patience…to insure a complete investigation…to allow time to gather evidence…to insure that our reaction is a thoughtful and thought-through response and not a simple knee-jerk emotional ‘lets go hit somebody’ type of response.

• examine the situations and policies that have given rise to such feelings of desperation and bitterness and seek to make a change in those policies to correct any injustices
• examine your personal lifestyle for ways in which my choices can indirectly promote oppression or abuse in other countries…and my own country…and make the change
• examine myself.
Have I wept for the deaths of Arabs, Muslims, Israelis, etc...with as much intensity and grief or have I fallen into the trap of thinking that it always happens there (but not here or the US)?

Is my grief in the lives lost and the senselessness of the killing or the loss of a my own security through the loss of a symbol of that security?

• forgive…forgive…forgive...yourself and others... including the "terrorists"....remember one person's terrorist is another person's freedom is a question of perception
• work for change...repent…not feel sorrow, but actively work to make the change.
o in your life (attitudes and actions)
o in the nation (your voice & vote)
o in the world (your nation, your voice, your vote)

The Bible does not call us to understand evil (or even the will of God for that matter) but to respond in the manner, mind and spirit of Christ...

Friday, September 02, 2011

"I ain't people!"...and other thoughts on Matthew 18:15-20

In the movie musical 'Singing in the Rain' the character of Lina Lamont, a silent screen star trying desperately to hold on to stardom with the advent of the talkies says, "People? I ain't people. I am a - shimmering glowing star in the cinema firmament!"

When you get right down to it, most of us think like Lina. We are not people. 'People' are the problem. 'Those people'. And that is the really difficult thing about community. It is made up of people! And people - not you and me, of course, but most people - can be difficult, challenging, selfish and unreliable. Hence the need for reconciliation, repentance and forgiveness. Lest we are tempted to use this text as a basis for judging others we dare not forget the words of Jesus in Matthew 7:

Do not judge others, so that God will not judge you,for God will judge you in the same way you judge others, and he will apply to you the same rules you apply to others. Why, then, do you look at the speck in your brother's eye and pay no attention to the log in your own eye? How dare you say to your brother, Please, let me take that speck out of your eye, when you have a log in your own eye? You hypocrite! First take the log out of your own eye, and then you will be able to see clearly to take the speck out of your brother's eye.

The guidelines that Jesus' describes in Matthew 18 apply to us as well. If someone comes to confront us with an offense we need to be open to hear what they have to say and be prepared to repent, too.

One of the most reassuring aspects of this text is found in verse 20 where Jesus says:

'For where two or three come together in my name, I am there with them.'

Notice that he doesn't specify those who come together in agreement or even peaceful harmony. Just those who come together in his name. When I confront a brother or sister in Christ in love I do so in the name of Christ. When I am confronted by another I receive them and their words in the name of Christ. So even in our times of disharmony, Christ is present.

Finally, it intrigues me that Jesus says that anyone who will not listen to the call for repentance should be treated as though he were a pagan or a tax collector. Makes me wonder how Matthew, a former tax collector, felt when he heard those words. If I remember correctly, didn't Jesus seek out the tax collectors, like Matthew and Zacchaeus. And as for pagans, I seem to recall Jesus talking about coming for the sick and for those who did not know God. So if I am to treat these people as pagans and tax collectors, well, it seems to me that I should redouble my love for them and show them all the more grace in word, attitude and action.