Rev. Dr. John Judson
September 28, 2014
Genesis 27:41-28:5, Matthew 21:23-32
The little girl is standing in a field of daisies. Slowly she begins plucking off the petals of a picked flower one by one as she counts them. She does really well until she gets to six, which she misses and then goes back and picks it up. Finally when she reaches one, suddenly a voice begins a countdown and the little girl looks up as if to find the voice. The camera moves in toward one of her eyes. As soon as all that you can see on the screen is the black of her eye, and the countdown reaches zero a nuclear explosion erupts and fills the screen. The voice that then comes is that of President Johnson who says, “These are the stakes, to make a world in which all of God’s children can live, or to go into the darkness. We must either love each other or we must die.” It was only shown one time…that’s right, a single time…yet it is credited with turning the 1964 race for president from a close contest into a runaway for Johnson. It proved again that attack ads work and work well. Little wonder then that that’s all we see on our television screens during this season when politicians go out to do battle.
Lest you think that this is something new, don’t. I say that not only because they have been part of presidential politics from George Washington on, but because it is the tactic employed by those who opposed Jesus. His opponents tried debating him and they lost. They tried to discredit his theology and he prevailed. So they turned to negative ads. They called him a drunkard. They said that he was filled with demons. And here in our morning’s story they challenge his authority. Within Judaism those who were teachers were highly trained. They could list the rabbis under whom they had studied. Or those in the Temple could speak of their authority coming from the high priest or other Temple officials. The chief priests and elders then decided that they best way to deal with Jesus was to question his authority and thus cause his followers to abandon him.
Jesus, however, was ready as always. Rather than attack back he plays “Let’s Make a Deal” and then tells a story with a pop quiz at the end. The Let’s Make a Deal portion of his response was to tell the religious leaders that if they could answer his question he would answer theirs. Fair enough, they must have thought for they agreed. Jesus however poses a question about who authorized John the Baptist to baptize, God or man. They are unwilling to answer because either answer will get them in trouble. The story Jesus offers again points to John, even if indirectly. The story is about two sons who are supposed to do a task. One agrees and doesn’t do it. The other refuses at first but then changes their mind and completes the task. When asked which does the will of the father, the leaders choose the latter, as they should have. This then opens the door for Jesus to unleash his own attack on the leaders…but there is a difference between the leaders’ attack on him and his on them. Jesus does so not to destroy them but to save them. He does so not to gain political advantage but to unleash the blessing of God upon them.
Over the past month or so we have been reading the story of Jacob and Esau. At the heart of that story is the idea that there is something called the blessing; the blessing which God had given to Abraham, which he gave to Isaac and then Isaac was to give to his eldest son Esau. For those of you who have not seen all of the episodes of this story, you missed the younger son Jacob conspiring with his mother to steal the blessing, Esau selling his birthright and thus his blessing to Jacob for some food and Jacob lying to his father and receiving the blessing. Our morning’s story is about the outcome of these actions…Jacob’s life in danger. But this raises the question of why the blessing matters so much. It matters because the blessing is no more and no less than the fullness of life which only God can give. It is a life enhancing and life transforming gift. It offers the possibility of physical, emotional and spiritual well-being. It means security, being cared for and watched over by God. It means that one’s life was not lived at the hands of fate, or lesser gods, but in the hands of the God of creation. Little wonder why both brothers wanted it so desperately.
All of that brings us back to John the Baptist. What John believed and what he proclaimed was that God was sending into the world a messiah who would unleash this blessing on all of the people of God. But in order to receive this blessing one had to repent, meaning turn away from a belief that the blessing was a possession which one gained at birth. One had to admit that the blessing was a gift of God that one had to continually embrace. For many people this was what they had been waiting for. Those who lived on the margins of society; tax collectors and prostitutes among them, who had been told that the blessing could never be theirs, flocked to John. They opened their lives to the possibility that this messiah could bless them and change their lives. For others however this was a difficult thing to hear. The religious leaders with whom Jesus is engaged in debate refused to go. They did not need a messiah to unleash the blessing of God. They controlled it. They were the ones who could give it away or keep it to themselves. They were the blessing gatekeepers. So when John asked them to repent and be open to this new thing that God was doing, they refused. Jesus wanted them to reconsider their choice.
My guess is that for some of us we might have a difficult time with going out to John as well. I say this not intending to be critical, but because we are part of a culture which believes that in some ways we already possess the blessing. After all we are Christians. We have been baptized. We have been confirmed. We have made a profession of faith. We are here in church. We know, at least to some degree the doctrines and beliefs of the church. And to use an oft used term…we are saved. All of this is wonderful, but the blessing, the full life which God wants to give us is not something that we can ever hang on to. It is like an embrace. The gift of an embrace, a hug, is that it changes us. In the moment in which we are taken up in the arms of another, whether it is the hug of a child, a friend or the one we love, we know that we are loved. We know that another cares about us and believes that we are worthy of this attention. We know that we are not alone in the world. It changes us. It adds to our humanity. But, it cannot be stored away for later use. It cannot be saved. It is something that must be repeated over and over again as it alters our perspective on who we are and how the world looks.
The blessing can only be embraced. And we embrace it when we move toward God in Jesus Christ. For you see, the love of Christ, the blessing of God is always moving toward us. Through our faith we move toward God. In worship we move toward God. In prayer we move toward God. In meditation and in service and perhaps even in viewing the beauty of nature we move toward God. We move toward embracing the blessing and being embraced by it. This is why exercising all of the spiritual disciplines matter because they are where the Spirit meets us with the fullness of the blessing that Jesus Christ unleashed in the world.
You and I live in a world that tries to convince us that the fullness of life can only be reached if we buy their product, reach a certain level of success or attend the right college…you choose which one. But the reality of the blessing of God is that only there is full life found…a life which will see us through the hard times and enrich the good times, assuring us that we are indeed the unique and beloved children of God.
My challenge to you this week then is to ask yourselves, “How am I embracing the blessing that God has given to me?”
The Kingdom of Heaven is Like ...
Rev. Amy Morgan
September 21, 2014
Genesis 27:30-40, Matthew 20:1-16
The kingdom of heaven is like this:
Jane is starting up a new tech company. Totally out of her garage, Steve Jobs-style. But she wants a team to work with. She’s not really the go-it-alone type, and a startup needs a variety of variety of talents to make it work. So she recruits some smart and energetic recent college grads. They all agree on a compensation package, nothing extravagant, but certainly enough to get by on. Their agreement also includes a guarantee that when the company goes public in three years each of them will be granted a $100,000 bonus. These promising young people are ready to start their careers, to work their way up in the world. The idea for the company seems promising, and the compensation is comparable to what their peers are finding elsewhere, so they sign on and get to work.
A year later, there have been some bumps in the road, and the work is getting hard. Jane has gotten a good deal on some office space in a hip but seedy part of Detroit, and there is more work to do than they can possibly keep up with, especially if they want to go public in two years. But the workers Jane hired stick with it, so Jane decides to add a few people to the team to share the load. She explains to the new team members that they will be paid enough to live on. She also tells them that they are hoping to go public in two years, and if they do, she’ll give them a fair bonus for their contribution.
Another year in, the company has had its ups and downs, now has three floors of office space in Troy, and development is really going places. Everyone is working crazy long hours, and it feels like they may be close to breaking out. In this hopeful spirit, Jane once again brings more people on board. The new hires understand that if the company goes public, they’ll be compensated fairly, but again, no specifics are discussed. Things go so well that this hiring scenario is repeated a couple of months later.
But by the end of the year, things are looking much less optimistic. They really haven’t found the right market for their product, their expenses have ballooned, and their investors are running for the door. They’ve got just a little capital left for one last push to try to make a go of it before the sun sets on this whole enterprise. Jane goes out once more to try to bring a few more people on board.
It’s slim pickings in the employee market these days, and it’s hard to find people interested in coming to work on a sinking ship. One of the company’s first employees, however, connects Jane with a few friends he went to school with who have been looking for work since graduation. He assures Jane that they were all just as smart and energetic and motivated, but the job market has just been really lousy for the last few years, especially for people with no experience. Their resumes are great, they interview well, and they’re skilled and well-educated and ready to work. But they just haven’t gotten picked up yet. They might just be desperate enough to help Jane with the 11th hour push to make this thing work. She makes them no promises, but tells them there is work if they want to do it. Going off of the logic that it’s easier to look for a job when you have a job, the last group of employees dive in and give it their all for the last month of the year.
By some miracle of market forces, something clicks at the last minute, and the company goes crazy, practically overnight. Within weeks, there are multiple buy-out offers, the company goes public, and Jane’s company is instantly worth billions.
She calls her staff together to share the good news. Addressing the employees who have only been there a month, she thanks them for joining in the last-ditch effort, and she gives each of them a $100, 000 bonus. They are thrilled and grateful. And everyone else starts to get excited. If Jane is so lavishly generous with the last group to be hired, clearly the bonuses will only get bigger for those with a greater investment of time and loyalty and hard work.
When Jane addresses those employees hired on in the last couple of years, she thanks them for their service and dedication through good times and bad, and she gives each of them a $100,000 bonus. While those who have been in the company less than a year are happy to get such a grand bonus, there is grumbling from those who have been in the company longer. Didn’t Mike deserve more for his innovation? Didn’t Andrea deserve more for all the extra-long hours she worked? Didn’t Carrie deserve more for the brilliant ideas she had that saved the company more than once?
Jane ignores their chatter and addresses the first employees of her company. Everyone is waiting with baited breath now. These are the people who first took a chance on Jane and her dream. These are the people with the most time and energy and talent invested in the company. They are waiting to see what lavish rewards Jane has in store for them and plotting their first expenditures. Maybe the trip to Italy they’ve always dreamed of and never had time or money for. Maybe a home in the fashionable part of Birmingham. Maybe just blow it on something fun, like that hot new Corvette. Or maybe they’ll end up with enough money to start up a company of their own.
Jane thanks these first employees for their loyalty and hard work, and she gives each of them a $100,000 bonus.
The room erupts in protest.
Didn’t they deserve more for taking risks, for working hard, for sticking with the company even when it looked like it was failing? How could they possibly get the same meager bonus as those slackers who’d only been working a month? Those people couldn’t get their act together to find a job for almost three years after graduation, and they get the same reward as those of us who got ourselves a job right out of school? This is crazy! Outrageous! Unfair!
Jane waits for them to quiet down and asks them, “Isn’t this what you agreed to work for? Isn’t this the deal we made? What is so unfair about paying you what was promised?”
Adam, one of the senior employees, speaks up. “You are giving them,” he says, pointing angrily at the last group to be hired, “the same thing you are giving us. That is not right, it’s not fair. They haven’t been here as long. They haven’t worked as hard. They haven’t earned it.”
“Yeah,” pipes up another of the long-timers, “we deserve more. We made this company what it is. We jumped at this opportunity even though it was risky. We took this company from nothing and made it a success. We are…we are…”
“We’re better than them!” interrupts another senior employee. “There, I said it, and you know you all think it’s true. We got jobs right out of school instead of bumming around unemployed and living in our parents’ basements for years. We worked long, hard hours when this company had no money, no office even, and these late-comers walked into this cushy office space with a fully-staffed operation and acted like they owned the place. And now you want to make us all equals? Well, we’re not. We’re not equal.”
The room grows quiet, and no one is quite sure what to say. Even through the last difficult month, the employees had worked as a team, doing whatever needed to be done, helping each other out. They had genuinely enjoyed working with each other, and they were all proud of their work.
Now, the senior employees felt exposed. Did they all secretly harbor feelings of superiority?
The newer employees felt ashamed. Had they really earned their bonuses in just a month?
Jane took a deep breath. “First, I’d like you all to remember that all of this is my money. It is my company. I started it. I invested in it. I kept it going. I hired all of you. And I made a lot of money in the end. I can do whatever I want with what is mine.”
“The only thing I am required to do in order to be fair, in order to be just, is to pay you what we agreed on. And I’ve done that, haven’t I?” she said, looking at the senior employees. Begrudgingly, they nodded.
“So then, it’s up to me if I want to be generous to others. None of you received bonuses because of your hard work, loyalty, accomplishments, or seniority. None of you earned them. The first employees got a bonus because I chose to give you one, and you thought that was a fair deal when you were hired. The rest of you got a bonus because I choose to give it to you now. It’s my call. Are those of you who have been here longer really going to be jealous because of my generosity?”
The senior employees looked around. The bonus was radically unfair and perfectly just, all at the same time. It was unmerited and wildly generous. It didn’t fit into any reasonable economic model. No capitalist reward for the quantity or quality of their work. No socialist taking from the rich to give to the poor. Maybe it was communist? They weren’t sure.
No one had gotten less than they’d bargained for. They all had plenty. Not enough for fashionable neighborhoods, high-risk investments, or sports cars maybe. But they all had at least what they were planning on, and some had more than they ever could have hoped for. They all had enough.
It wasn’t about merit. It wasn’t even about equality. It just didn’t make sense.
Finally, someone spoke up. “Why did you do it?”
“Because it’s who I am,” Jane replied.
“I am just, and I am gracious. These two parts of my character live in irreconcilable tension. My corporate economics demand an equality so radical it isn’t fair, a generosity so expansive it isn’t equal. It leaves no space for division and competition, winning and losing, superiority and shame.
To work with me is to live in that tension, too. It is a tension that requires us to see the world through the lens of gratitude and sufficiency. Where we look for equity, we find generosity. Where we seek justice, we find grace.”
“But that’s not how the world works!” piped up one employee.
“No,” replied Jane. “You’re right. It’s not.”
The kingdom of heaven is like this.
Rev. Dr. John Judson
September 14, 2014
Genesis 27:18-29, Romans 14:1-12
“You’re not folding the towels right.” This was one of the first revelations of our marriage after Cindy and I had walked down the aisle, gone on the honeymoon and driven to seminary. “What do you mean I am not folding the towels correctly? They are folded and hung up.” As far as I was concerned the towels were hung exactly as they should have been. You take one edge fold it over and then hang it up. This is the way I had always hung my towels. It was the way we hung our towels at the house where I grew up. “I know they are hung up,” Cindy said, “But they are not hung up correctly.” At this point I was getting a bit miffed. “So what is the correct way?” “Like this,” she said, as she neatly folded one side of the towel in and then the other side in for a neat, clean look. “There is no right way to fold a towel,” I said. Yes there is, she replied. This morning then, I want to take a poll. How many of you fold your towels in half and hang them? OK, how many of you fold each side in and hang them? (the congregation was split)
Now you understand where Paul found himself in the church at Rome; in the middle of a towel fight. The church had divided itself into camps over two issues. Each side of each issue believed that they were right and the other side was wrong. The first issue was whether or not to eat meat. This had nothing to do with health and everything to do with the fact that all meat in Rome had been sacrificed to idols at temples. One side said that to eat meat was worshipping idols. The other side said that since idols are not real it didn’t matter. The second disagreement was over holy days; namely on which days people ought to worship. Should they follow a Jewish calendar or simply worship on Sunday, the day Jesus was resurrected? Though Jesus did not speak to either of these issues, the people involved knew that they were right and their opponents were wrong. These disagreements were dividing the church.
It would be nice to believe that these were the last disagreements in the church and that everyone lived happily ever after. However we all know, or soon will know, that this is not true. In fact this kind of “I am right and you are wrong…be gone with you” would become a fact of life in the church. About 300 years after this debate the church divided over the divinity of Christ. One side said he was divine, the other said he was not. The church divided. Around the year 1000 one side of the church said all authority belonged to the Pope. The other said all authority belonged to councils of bishops. The church divided east and west. Five hundred years later one group said that salvation is by the sheer grace of God. The other side said no it was by merit. The church divided between Catholic and Protestant. Over the next five hundred years the church divided again and again over issues such as baptism, adult or child; speaking in tongues, yes or no; ordination, men and women, or only men, or persons regardless of their sexual orientation; as well as a host of other matters. And each time both sides claimed to be correct and were more than happy to either leave or cast out those who believed differently. Each side had to be correct.
What fascinates me about all of this is that it is as if no one actually took the time to read what Paul had to say to the church at Rome about their issues. I say this because to sum up Paul first, he says that it is OK to disagree, to hold different viewpoints on the same issue and stay together. Second, he says that it is not OK to judge others and declare that you are right and they are wrong. And in so doing he offers three reasons that this is so.
First, he says that we have no right to judge those whom God has welcomed into God’s party. “Who are you,” Paul writes, “to pass judgment on servants of another?” In essence he says that if we judge others and declare that they are wrong, it would be like you or I being invited to a party, seeing some other guests that we didn’t like and asking them to leave because it is not proper that they should be there. Paul remarks that this action would make us very rude guests. Paul knows the Christians in Rome. He knows that they have all been called and chosen by God. He knows that they all believe in Jesus Christ and that the Spirit is in them. To judge another, he writes, is to judge someone whom God has invited to the table.
Second, he says that they believe what they believe because they believe that it honors God. “Those who observe the day, observe it in honor of the Lord. Also those who eat, eat in honor of the Lord since they give thanks to God; while those who abstain, abstain in honor of the Lord and give thanks to God.” Paul is making it clear here that there are beliefs and practices that differ, but what matters is the intent behind the belief and practice. If some Christians believe that speaking in tongues honors God, fabulous. If some Christians believe not speaking in tongues honors God, fabulous! He continues by reminding us that we do not live to ourselves and we do not die to ourselves, but to the Lord…meaning we are not the last word on what is right or what is wrong.
Third, Paul tells us that we are not the judge or the jury. “Why do you pass judgment on your brother or sister? Or, why do you despise your brother or sister? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God. For it is written, “As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall give praise to God. So then, each of us will be accountable to God.” God is the judge, we are not. I’m not sure if there is a more overlooked and forgotten passage of scripture than this one. As Christians we have spent two thousand years pretending that we get to judge and God merely signs off on our judgments, because after all we are right and they, whoever they are, are wrong. Paul wants us to remember that ultimately we will all stand before God and have to account for our judgments and our choices.
What is so interesting about us as Presbyterians is that we have split about as many times as any denomination can split, even though we supposedly agree with Paul. How so? It is so because within our tradition we acknowledge that we will never have perfect beliefs or perfect practices. We acknowledge that every confession and every council will make mistakes. All we can do is try to be the best we can as imperfect children of God and followers of Jesus Christ. Let me be clear that this does not mean that we do not set out what we believe, for we do. We have a great history of striving to understand the will of God as best we can, so we can be the best Christ followers that we can be. At the same time though, we know these beliefs and practices are proximate and not perfect. For many of us in an anxiety ridden world, in which there is an ever increasing desire for absolute truth and absolute certainty, it can be a difficult to believe that we do not know exactly what is the truth about every doctrine and practice. Yet Paul reminds us that this is OK. It is OK to hold two very different sets of beliefs over issues even though some consider one or the other to be essential. But he does so because he believes that the church is better together rather than split apart. For if Christ is one, why ought we to be more than one? The challenge then for us is to be open to hearing what those on the other side of issues have to say. The challenge is to be open to the possibility that each side may be right and be open to the possibility that God may be opening our eyes to new possibilities of being the church. My challenge for you this week then is to ask, “How am I being open to the new things that God might be doing in the world, in the church and in my life?”
Rev. Dr. John Judson
September 7, 2014
Genesis 27:1-17, Matthew 18:1-4, 10-14
There are moments when I believe that if some intelligent alien race ever came to earth and tried to figure out how we spend our time, the conclusion that they would draw is that we append our time on creating top-ten lists. It seems as though every day brings a new list. We have the top ten richest Americans, the top ten largest corporations, the top ten hospitals, the top ten best universities, the top ten best bang for your buck colleges, the top ten party schools, the top ten best looking and best dressed people (I did not make either list) and on and on. In fact, I would bet that whatever you are interested in; there is a top ten list for it. In a way this should not surprise us. After all we human beings are a competitive lot. Ever since we Homo-sapiens figured out how to move to the top of the food chain and demote the Neanderthals, we have been competing against one another for the top of whatever list mattered. And we do virtually anything to get to the top…which is where our story and this morning’s story meet.
Both of our stories have this striving to be number one as their theme. Our first story is about Esau and Jacob’s struggle to be number one to receive their father’s blessing. Jacob and his mother even resort to lying and trickery to get it. Our second story concerns Jesus and his disciples. The disciples had spent their lives as outsiders to power. They were from Galilee, a small provincial kind of place that was looked down on by other Jews. They had staked their futures on this Jesus guy and so now they wanted to know where they would be ranked in the Kingdom of God. “So Jesus,” they asked, “Who is greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven.” We are not sure if they wanted Jesus to rank order them, or simply wanted an assurance that they would be top dogs when the Kingdom arrived. Regardless, Jesus response probably caught them off guard.
It caught them off guard because instead of giving them an assurance of their place at the top of the heap in the coming age, Jesus told them that if they even wanted to enter the kingdom they had to become like a little child; meaning humble and vulnerable. Chances are this disturbed them greatly, almost as much as being humble and vulnerable disturbs us. I say this first because they had followed Jesus as a way of leaving being humble and vulnerable behind. I say this second because the images which humility and vulnerability conjure up for us are often indeed disturbing. It is as if Christians are supposed to exist only in the background of life, always deferring to others, saying things like, “Oh, I don’t want that job, give it to someone else. They are probably better than I am.” Or it is as if Christians are to hang a sign on our backs reading, “Kick me, I’m a Christian.” In other words we are to become the door-mats of the world. What I want to offer you this morning though, is that I believe this is not at all what Jesus meant when he brought the child into the midst of the disciples…and here is why; because this is not the way Jesus lived.
What I mean by that is that Jesus is the model of both humility and vulnerability. He is the model of humility because he stood with the poor, the marginalized and the outcasts in such a way that they knew that they mattered to him and to God. Jesus’ presence with those on the margins was never condescending, but always compassionate. He treated them with the dignity and respect due to children of God. It was as if he was one of them and they were truly his friends. He did not act like Super-Messiah sweeping in to save those who were lesser than himself. Jesus was indeed one with those he served. He is also the model of vulnerability because when he ate with sinners and tax collectors; when he met with the wrong kind of people he was criticized and condemned. He became vulnerable because he dared to step across the acceptable cultural divides of race and status and stand with those who were the unacceptable. Ultimately these actions would lead to his death.
The year was 1977. The place was El Salvador. In that year the Catholic Church elected their new Archbishop and it was a conservative who had strongly supported the church hierarchy’s practice of focusing on spiritual salvation and avoiding any work with the poor. The local priests, who lived side by side with the poor were stunned by the election. Three weeks after his installation a personal friend of the new Archbishop, Father Rutiilo Grande, was murdered along with an elderly man and the man’s grandson. Grande had been an advocate for the poor and the marginalized. The new Archbishop, looking at his murdered friend said, “If they killed him for what he did then I need to walk the same path.” And in that moment Archbishop Oscar Romero began his short career as one who stood with the poor. He spoke out against poverty, social injustice and the assassinations carried out by government supported death squads. Three years later, while saying mass, Romero was killed as well. He was a man who had discovered what it meant to be humble, and vulnerable.
The question before us today then is with whom will we stand as we are called to be humble and vulnerable? Will we stand with the children in Detroit and Pontiac in need of a good education? Will we stand with foster children and youth who need love and support? Will we stand with the hungry of Metro Detroit to see that they have adequate food for each day? Will we stand with the poor in Yucatan who do not have adequate health care? Will we stand with the people of Kenya who have no access to clean water or education? Will we stand with the 70% of women in rural India who cannot read? My challenge to you today is this, as we come to this table which reminds us that Jesus stood with as and ask, “With whom will I stand in humility and vulnerability, as Jesus Christ stood with me?”