Rev. Dr. John Judson
October 26, 2014
Deuteronomy 14:22-29, Matthew 14:13-21
Your boss has wowed the crowd. She has been presenting down at COBO hall to a packed crowd of about twenty-thousand people. They have given her standing ovation after standing ovation. Nonetheless you look at your watch and it is getting late. Your boss had gone well beyond her allotted time and it is Sunday night, and all of the restaurants are closed so there is no place for these people to go and eat…and since they are from out of town without hotel reservations they will have a long drive home. You and your cohorts pull your boss aside and whisper in her ear that you are concerned for the attendees that they are hungry and have a long way to go before reaching home. Perhaps she should just wrap it up and send the people on their way. Without giving it a thought she turns to you and says, “Why don’t you feed them?” Thinking that it is a great joke you and your friends offer a smile and a laugh. “No,” she responds, “I mean it. You give them something to eat.” Stammering you reply that all that is left from the luncheon are two Jimmy John’s freaky fast sandwiches and a bag of chips. “No problem,” she says, “Bring them to me.” She says a prayer, breaks the sandwiches and says, “You can do it. Go feed them” She has just asked you to do the impossible.
If you can put yourself in that position, then you have an idea of what the disciples were thinking when Jesus told them to go feed the more than 20,000 people who were spread out across the mountain side. Jesus was asking them to do the impossible. Now, you may be thinking to yourselves, well of course they can do it. They are with Jesus. Jesus can do anything. And in some ways that is correct, yet they do not have the advantage of our two-thousand years of hindsight. Sure, Jesus had cured some people who were ill, driven out some demons and stilled a storm. But feeding twenty thousand people…that was probably even above Jesus’ pay grade. After all, Moses, the greatest prophet there ever was didn’t feed the people…that was a God thing. Moses prayed and God caused the food to appear. Moses didn’t take a little bit of manna, give it to his friends and say, “You feed them.” Since the disciples were neither Jesus nor Moses, they knew that this was not going to turn out well. Jesus had just asked them to do the impossible. Even so, the disciples were about to learn a lesson about what happens when the people of God bring their best to God; that sometimes the impossible can become possible.
This lesson is at the heart of both of our morning’s stories. Our Old Testament tale is actually two commands from the Torah, or the Law of God. The first commands that people are to take a tithe of what they produced and bring it to the place where God is worshipped. And if they live too far away to bring animals or produce they are to bring the monetary equivalent. There they are to eat it. On the surface this may sound like the first church picnic on the grounds, but it is more than that. It is in fact a moment when the impossible becomes possible. What I mean by that is that when the Torah says, “they are to eat it” the “they” means the entire community. In other words, everyone share their tithe with everyone else so that everyone has enough. This insures the impossible that all people have enough to eat, regardless of what they were able to produce. The second story expands this sharing to include widows, orphans and others who lived on the margins of society, often unable to provide for themselves. This is again making the impossible possible, because everyone in society gets enough. This is a lesson God had tried to teach God’s people and a lesson that Jesus was trying to teach the disciples.
What we find in this story is a teachable moment; a moment in which Jesus saw an opportunity to continue his training of the disciples. One of the things that we need to remember about Jesus was that he was continually training his followers to take over when he was gone. All of the healings and teachings that Jesus did were not only signs of the in-breaking Kingdom of God, but they were on-the-job training for his disciples. In a sense it was similar to the training that physicians go through. This past week when I was in the hospital, I was asked to be the object of a grand rounds discussion. The head of the Internal Medicine Department arrived with a medical student and three residents. He had them repeat the history they had taken of me then showed them various techniques they should use when doing a complete work-up of a patient. He did so in order that those physicians and future physicians could then do the same thing once they were on their own. This is, I believe, what Jesus was doing with the disciples; he had taught and was now sending them out to try their hand at serving God’s people. So, Jesus asked the disciples to bring all they had to him so that he could bless it, then he expected them to trust enough to make the impossible possible, to feed the people. Even though we often see this feeding as one more of Jesus’ miracles, I would ask you to see it as the first of the disciples’ miracles because they were the ones who time after time, dipped into the little bread and fish and courageously pulled out piece after piece. They were learning that when God’s people brought their best to God, impossible things become possible.
What you may ask, does this have to do with us? The answer is that we too are to learn the lesson that when God’s people bring their best, their tithe to God, the impossible becomes possible. And what is the impossible we are supposed to be doing? It is in fact what we are already doing. We are making First Presbyterian Church of Birmingham into a mainline church that is not declining, not simply surviving, but is thriving in such a way as to be God’s agent of making lives better not only within this church, but in this area and around the world. We are learning that by our bringing your gifts to this community we are insuring that all persons regardless of race, status, sexual orientation or abilities have a place in which they can worship, grow and learn about the love God has for them. We do this through providing for and assisting with worship, Sunday school, youth group, our All Abilities Inclusion Ministry and all the rest of the ministries that God uses to change lives. We do this by bringing our gifts to insure that students at Alcott Elementary receive a better education and the personal attention that they need to succeed as well as to have food on the weekends. By bringing our gifts we make it possible for foster children and families to feel supported and loved. By bringing our gifts we make sure that less fortunate families have an amazing Thanksgiving and a merry Christmas. In other words, when we at Everybody’s Church bring our best gifts, God uses them to make the impossible, possible, changing lives for the better.
All of us who are here this morning stand in the great tradition of God’s people who are called to bring our best gifts to God in order that the impossible becomes possible. So my challenge to you is to ask yourselves this questions, “What best gifts ought I to be bringing to God in order that God use them to change lives for the better here and around the world?”
Rev. Amy Morgan
October 19, 2014
Genesis 32:1-12, Matthew 22:15-22
They ripped paintings off the walls, dashed statues on the ground, and demolished reliquaries. They smashed stained glass windows and threw rocks at the altar. In three days, they destroyed all the images within four hundred churches while their throats were filled with hymns and Psalms. It was 1566, and the Beggars’ Rebellion in the Lowlands of Holland collided with the Calvinist preachers’ denouncement of idolatry in the church.
This was the violent birth of Reformed architecture, the plain white columns and unadorned chancel reflecting a theology opposed to the creation and veneration of images of God. Calvin devoted three chapters of his theological writings to denouncing icons, asserting that “images are not suited to represent God’s mysteries.”
I was recently accused of being a good Calvinist, and I do love the simplicity and the familiarity of Reformed architecture.
But last fall, I took a pilgrimage to Greece and found a new appreciation for the icons Calvin detested.
Orthodox Christianity has a theological history of iconography that extends back, they claim, to the very first Christian churches. Icons are meant not to be objects of worship in and of themselves, but to draw us into the worship of that which they represent. Icons served as visual story tellers for the illiterate, but also as a way for anyone to encounter God through representations of God’s incarnation in Jesus Christ. Rather than draw God down into the earth, they are meant to be “windows to the kingdom,” drawing us deeper into the mystery of God.
In Greece, I saw hundreds of icons as I toured churches and monasteries all over the country. Icons of Christ, Mary, John the Baptist, saints and martyrs adorned sanctuaries, chapels, and the shelves of gift shops. And while the Calvinist in me objected, I quickly began to grieve for what our tradition had lost. Gazing upon the icon of the Holy Trinity, I was drawn into the mystery of the interrelated Godhead. I experienced theological truth and emotional satisfaction in the image of the ascendant Christ that adorns the dome of each sanctuary. I began to wonder what was wrong with Calvin that he couldn’t see the value of sacred art.
I felt no need to bow to or kiss the icons as the Orthodox believers did. Nor did I feel compelled to destroy them as false idols. I began to feel that I was trapped somewhere between two traditions that has somehow failed to have meaningful conversation about this issue over the course of history.
First century Judaism had its own controversies regarding sacred art. Some kinds of art were found objectionable while other sorts seemed acceptable. But the image at the center of today’s story is not at first recognized as sacred in any way and is therefore not controversial for its iconic quality.
Let me begin by setting up this encounter a bit: Jesus has entered Jerusalem triumphantly and has proceeded to heap insult and injury on the religious leadership. He turns over tables in the temple and tells parables that criticize the Jewish authorities. And now they’ve had enough. The Pharisees, you might remember, are keen to uphold the letter of the law in order to maintain their Jewish identity within the context of Roman occupation. And they team up with some unlikely collaborators – the Herodians. The Herodians were, as you might guess, devotees of Harod, the ruler set up over the Jews by the Roman authorities, making the Herodians much more willing to assimilate into Roman culture. They were keen to maintain positive relations with Rome and thereby keep their power and authority. What these two strange bedfellows have in common is a desire to keep the peace. An uprising of Jewish zealots would endanger the lives of all Jews. Any interruption in the fragile peace of the region would be dangerous. And from what they’ve heard and seen of Jesus, he could potentially be a rather major interruption.
And so they come together to trap Jesus in his own words.
The question is simple: as a wise teacher who follows God and who doesn’t take sides, do you think it is lawful to pay taxes or not?
What is at stake in this question has nothing to do with taxes. Instead, it is the other certainty they are concerned with: death. You see, on the one hand, paying taxes, meaning tribute, to a man who claims to be the son of god – as the Emperor does - could be seen as an infraction of the second commandment, a sin punishable by death. And while the Jewish leaders don’t have the authority to enact this punishment, if they can get Jesus to advocate breaking this commandment, they can discredit and disgrace him. On the other hand, to refuse to pay taxes would amount to sedition, a crime also punishable by death. In fact, it is one of the accusations used against Jesus before Pilate.
The question that is really being asked here is an impossible one, and the Pharisees and Herodians know it. Will Jesus side with the idolatrous Romans or be a seditious Jew? It’s a lose-lose. It’s a brilliant scheme.
But they underestimate just how good a rabbi Jesus really is. When he looks at that coin used to pay the tax, he does not see a choice between idolatry and sedition. Jesus sees a man, made in the image of God, as it says in the first chapter of Genesis, made a little lower than the angels, as it says in the 8th Psalm. He sees a coin worth one day’s wage and remembers the commandment to keep the Sabbath, to give one day of every week to God.
Jesus is not trapped. Because he knows something that the Pharisees and Herodians have clearly forgotten.
Jacob, for all his faults, is well aware of the truth that is about to shock the Pharisees and Herodians. In our story today, he is trapped between his father-in-law, Laban, from whom he has just narrowly escaped, and his brother Esau, from whom he stole their father’s blessing. Jacob can’t go back to a life of servitude under Laban, but he’s terrified of what his brother will do to him when he sees him.
In this tight spot, Jacob does two important things: he acknowledges God’s sovereignty, and he pays his taxes.
He prays to God, recognizing that all that he has is a gift from God and that he is not worthy of the favor he has received. Everything is from God and belongs to God and gives glory to God. And he knows that he is following God’s will in returning to his homeland. But he also knows that Esau is not going to be happy to see him, and rightly so. And so Jacob pays tribute to Esau, he sends him hundreds of animals from his flock. He doesn’t worry about whether the percentage is too high or too low. He isn’t concerned about whether or not Esau is going to use his animals in a manner he agrees with. He remembers that they aren’t his in the first place. They are God’s.
And when Jacob and Esau finally meet, do you know what Jacob says? He says, “to see your face is to see the face of God.”
That is what Jesus sees. A world that is created by God and belongs to God. The image, the icon, of a man made in God’s image. The question about taxes is beside the point. If what you see on this coin is the image of a man-made god, then you have to decide between idolatry and sedition. But if what you see on this coin is a man made in God’s image, then give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.
Like an Orthodox icon, Jesus uses the coin to open a window into the mystery and truth of God’s kingdom.
While I mourn the loss of sacred art and am ashamed of the Protestant iconoclasts, I agree that we must vigilantly oppose idolatry. But I don’t fear images on painted wood or sculpted in marble. I’m not concerned about stained glass or ornamented sanctuaries.
But when I see photo shopped celebrities or self-aggrandizing selfies, I have to ask, “who do I see here? Is it a human-made god or a God-made human?” I get trapped between idolatry and cultural sedition all the time.
But the freedom offered to us in Jesus Christ is the assurance that the world is being re-made, that humanity has been redeemed, and that we will one day see God face to face. And until then, we can see the face of God everywhere, but only if we are looking through the lens of God’s sovereignty.
We are surrounded by idols and icons. Many times, they are the same thing. We can idolize people, or, like Jacob, in their faces we can see the face of God. We can idolize our money, or, like Jesus, use it as an opportunity to remember that everything belongs to God.
And so, I invite us to smash the idols and embrace the icons. Get rid of our hang-ups about what belongs to whom. Remember that everything belongs to God. Use every image, every icon, as an opportunity to see the face God. To whom be all glory forever and ever. Amen.
Rev. Dr. John Judson
October 12, 2014
Genesis 28:10-22, Matthew 22:1-14
It was the only doctor’s visit I hated as a child…and no, it was not going to the pediatrician to get shots. It was going to the Ophthalmologist. I was one of those kids that got glasses very, very early in life. And once a year we went to get me new glasses. I am not sure why my parents chose the Ophthalmologist they chose, but I hated, because we always had to wait…and wait…and wait. If our appointment was at 2pm, we would not be seen until 4pm and we would not leave until 5pm. And even though my mother knew this, we would always be on time, so we could wait. The only salvation I found was a children’s magazine called Highlights. It had all sorts of games and puzzles that kept me busy until my eyes were dilated. One of my favorite games was, “What is Wrong with this Picture?” It was loaded with all sorts of funny things that ought not to have been there; chickens flying helicopters, giant vegetables and dogs walking people. The reason I offer this story is because as soon as I read our morning’s Jesus’ story…all I could think of was what’s wrong with this picture.
So let’s take a moment and go through Jesus’ parable this morning and look at the things that just seem to be wrong. First there are people who, when invited to a great wedding banquet for the prince of the land, refuse to come. This is not a smart move. It is not good to bite the hands that feed you. Next, those same people who refused to come to the banquet decide that not only will they refuse to go, but they will seize the king’s slaves and abuse them. This is even a worse idea. The King, being a bit ticked off, sends out his army to destroy the people and burn their city…all the while the food for the wedding banquet is on the table. I can just see him telling the queen, “But Dear, the Army will be right back and then we can eat.” Next the King decides to invite everyone else to the party, good or bad, it does not matter. This is not something that kings generally do. Finally, there is some poor fellow who after being invited to the party, forgets to wear the right clothes and is tied up and thrown out in the darkness. There would seem to be a lot wrong with this story.
However, before we chuck this story, perhaps we need to take a moment and ask ourselves what it right with it, for remember, Jesus is telling this strange story to make a couple of points, two of which we will lift up. First, Jesus wants the people to know that God invites everyone to the party. In the beginning of Jesus’ ministry the only people he invited to the party were God’s chosen people, the children of Israel. In fact probably ninety-five percent of his ministry was focused on them; thus the reference to those who had been invited. After many of them refused to come, Jesus invited everyone else, all of us, to the party. And it did not matter to whom we were related, whether we were good or bad, or anything else. Jesus sent his disciples all across the world inviting people to the party. And in so doing the message was, come as you are, because Jesus welcomes you just as you are, no questions asked. This is an amazing act of love.
Second, however, Jesus does not want us to stay as we are. Let me repeat that even though Jesus welcomes us as we are, he does not want us to stay as we are. This is the point Jesus is making with that last strange part of the story about the man without the wedding garment being tied up and tossed out. While this may seem a bit unfair, it was a warning to those people who followed Jesus that what was expected of them was change. I say this because the wedding garment represented the very act of putting on Christ. In the early church when someone was baptized, they literally took off their old clothes and put on a new white robe. When they did so, they committed themselves to becoming new people whose lives were to more and more resemble that of Jesus. In other words, they took personal responsibility to intentionally seek to follow Christ in all aspects of their lives. I realize that we Presbyterians baptize children…who obviously cannot make that personal choice. But we do so first believing that we are claiming our children on God’s behalf. Second, we do so because we make the parents take the personal responsibility for helping to shape their children’s Christ-like character.
Now, before I close I want to make it clear what I am not saying, because sometimes it is as important to know what I am not saying as it is to know what I am saying. First, what I am not saying is that there is some perfection-bar above which we must rise in our lives in order to stay at the party. In other words it was like when I was in the Peace Corps and I decided to take the Foreign Service Exam. I went to the United States Embassy and waited with all the other test takers. As we waited I could overhear the conversations about how most of these people were temporary Department of State employees and unless they passed the exam they would lose their jobs. This is not what Jesus is saying. What matters is the effort. What matters is that we take a sense of personal responsibility for our lives in Jesus Christ. What matters is that we consciously put on the wedding garment and do our best to live as one who follows Jesus. Second, what I am not saying is that we do this alone. Not only do we strive to follow Christ in the midst of a church family, but we do so with God’s assistance. Just as God came to Jacob and reaffirmed the covenant promises to him, God is present at the party as we strive to live into our faith.
With all of that in mind, I want to ask you all to do something this morning. I would like to ask you to once again intentionally put on the garment…and this is how we are going to do this. I am going to ask you the questions I asked Toby and Savannah, in order that you renew your own baptismal vows, which are by the way, the questions we ask of all new members. Here they are:
Rev. Dr. John Judson
October 5 2014
Genesis 28:10-22, Matthew 21:33-46
I had invited the children down front for the children’s sermon. As was usual they came walking, running or skipping to the front. A new little girl who was visiting for the first time was the first one up to the front and she took a seat on my knee. I wrapped an arm around her and welcomed her. By focusing on her I failed to notice the look on my daughter’s face. She was about four or so and my knee was her place. Suddenly I heard this voice that could have been used on the Exorcist, “My daddy!” Then my daughter grabbed the little girl by the arm and was going to yank her off of my knee. I quietly scooped up my daughter with both arms and placed her on my other knee. But if looks could kill, that little girl would not have made it out of the sanctuary alive.
Mine, it is one of the first words we learn. And as soon as we do we begin to mark out what is ours. My daddy. My mommy. My toys. My room. My side of the car seat. We might think that as we get older we let go of the mine syndrome. But we don’t. We simply use the words with things that are more expensive. My car. My spouse. My children. My house. My job. And this is not new and in fact forms the basis for our morning’s story within a Jesus’ story.
Our story finds Jesus still holding forth with the religious and Temple leaders in Jerusalem. Last week we looked at how he won round one, and today we find him going for round two. He does so by telling a story to which almost all of his listeners could relate. There was a landowner who did everything necessary for a successful wine business. He then leased his vineyard to some people who were going to run it for him. When the time was right he sent his servants to collect his lease payment. The people at the vineyard had however decided that the vineyard was theirs. They not only beat the servants but killed them and the son of the owner. Jesus then asks the assembled crowd what ought to happen. To a person they answer, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and leave the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at harvest time.” Had this been school they would have received an “A” and a gold star, for that was the right answer.
We can imagine that the Temple leaders were feeling pretty good because they had gotten the correct answer…that is until they realized that they were the murderous tenants in the story. And they realized it when Jesus made mention of the stone which the builders rejected. This is a direct reference to the Book of Daniel in which there is a new kingdom represented by a stone which destroys all of the kingdoms that have come before it, and this stone kingdom is the final one which will be established by God. In other words Jesus tells the religious leaders that they along with all of their predecessors have not given God, God’s due which was to create the kind of Kingdom community that God desired; a kingdom in which the poor, the widow, the orphan and the stranger are treated with respect. Instead they killed God’s servants, the prophets, in order that the religious leaders could create a kingdom in their own image; one in which power and privilege were worshipped. And now Jesus, the son, has come to initiate the one final stone kingdom; a kingdom which will be based on the love and grace of God through which all of the families of the earth will be blessed. In other words, unless the leaders change and give God God’s due by following Jesus and welcoming his new Kingdom, their kingdom will fall.
This concept, that we are to give God God’s due by helping to create a new kingdom community which blesses not only ourselves, but all the families of the earth, is not new to us. We have looked at it in various sermons and articles, but what may be a bit disconcerting is the image Jesus used to describe how we are to be a part of that kingdom creating process; being lessees rather than owners. I say this may be a bit disconcerting because we are used to using the words my, mine and ours. This is my life. This is our home. This money is mine and no one else’s. This is my time. And my guess is that sometimes we feel like Jimmy Stewart in the movie Shenandoah when he offers this prayer. “Lord we cleared this land, we plowed it, sowed it and harvested it, we cooked the harvest and it wouldn’t be here and we wouldn’t be eating it if we hadn’t done it all ourselves. We worked dog-bone hard for ever crumb and morsel. We thank you just the same anyway Lord for this food we are about to eat. Amen” Yet in the end what we and his character forget is that we did not create the land, bring the rain, or create the seed. We forget that it is God who breathes life into us, claims us, forgives us and empowers us through the Spirit. It is God who has given us everything including the Son. And with all of that given to us, all that God asks is that we offer God back a willingness to work for a kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.
My challenge to you this week is to ask yourselves this question, “How does seeing myself as a lessee rather than an owner of my life change how I work to create God’s kingdom here on earth?”