Monday, November 10, 2014

Pentecost 22 - 9 November 2014

MT 25.1-13 

JoAnn A. Post 

Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. 3When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. But at midnight there was a shout, 'Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.' Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish said to the wise, 'Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.' But the wise replied, 'No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.' 10 And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut. 11 Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, 'Lord, lord, open to us.' 12 But he replied, 'Truly I tell you, I do not know you.' 13 Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour. 

November 9, 1938. Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass. Nazi paramilitary forces smashed their way through cities in Germany and Austria, shattering the glass storefronts of Jewish-owned businesses. 91 people died; over 30,000 were incarcerated in what would later come to be known as concentration camps—concentration of evil. It was the first salvo fired in a war that would rage across five continents, claiming over 70 million lives. That night, that night of broken glass, felt like both the end of the world to those who endured it, and the end of the world as we knew it. 

November 9, 1989. The Berlin Wall cracked, allowing first a trickle and then a torrent of German citizens to flee the oppression of the East for the relative freedom of the West. It is now believed that the wall’s breaching was a mistake an order misheard by a border guard. But whether it was intentional or accidental, a whole generation of East Germans watched their tightly-controlled, well-ordered, highly-regulated world crash into a pile of rubble. Though the world they knew was demoralizing and dehumanizing, it was the only world many of them knew. We recognized the Fall Wall as a beginning, but it was most certainly also an end. 

November 9, 2014. Is today the end of someone’s world?

Liturgically speaking, we are only weeks away from the end of the church year with Christ the King Sunday in two weeks. A week later we celebrate the beginning of the new year on the First Sunday of Advent. Biblically speaking, we are entering the home stretch of Jesus’ public teaching in Matthew, only verses away from his betrayal, denial and death. The calendar speaks a certain end; scripture texts expose a threatening horizon; our hymns strain toward a distant light; our prayers are for a glimpse of God’s face. 

But for most of the world, these days are like all others. God is neither nearer nor farther away; the end of the world is a reality only for survivalists and movie actors; the days are darker, but that’s only a function of the earth’s regular rotation, not some sinister gathering storm. 

So it is hard to take the parable of the wise and foolish bridesmaids very seriously, to capture the urgency of their circumstance. I imagine them, all dressed up and no groom in sight. As the evening wore on, their carefully-coiffed do’s lost some of their loft; their color-coordinated shoes and dresses sported scuffs and wrinkles; their posy bouquets wilted in the Middle Eastern heat. And their lamps—oil-fired, hand-held lamps intended to light the path for the groom and his bride, began to flicker. The disappointed attendants slumped like drunken sailors against the wall, despairing that they would ever be pressed into service. Never even a bridesmaid, let alone a bride. 

But at midnight came the cry, “It’s the bridegroom! Fire the lamps! The wedding is about to begin!” And the rumpled women leapt to their feet, straightened their dresses and pulled out their Bic lighters, like a scrum of nicotine-addicted Jersey girls. So far, I can imagine the scene. But then the story grows implausible. 

Five of the bridesmaids—it was a large wedding party—had oil enough even at that late hour. Five did not—their lamps had gone out. But rather than sharing their oil, splitting their fire so all of them could join the party, the five well-oiled bridesmaids turned up their powdered noses at the five whose lamps were not as efficient. Leaving five young women groping in the dark, the rest of the wedding party galloped to the event, oblivious to the sorrow and the danger to which they relegated those five ill-oiled would-be attendants. 

I hate this story. You already know I’m not a fan of big weddings—ten bridesmaids is enough to make any pastor’s stomach lurch. But it’s not the size of the wedding or the tardiness of the bridegroom that bugs me. I am put off by the arrogant attitude of the other attendants, and the image of the bridegroom—a thinly-veiled stand-in for Jesus—as a selfish cad—and his equally selfish friends, abandoning some to the dark without a backward glance. 

Is that how it will be when Jesus returns? Is that how it is now? Some are taken and some are left? Some hit the jackpot and some get hit? 

Without question, Jesus is painting a harsher picture of himself than he normally would. Remember, this same Jesus has a soft spot for children and the poor, for the uneducated and the outsider. This cavalier attitude is not typical of him. The issue is, from Jesus’ standpoint, that his own end is very near. Only a few parables from now, Jesus’ path will turn toward the cross. And he’s a little impatient, a little irritable, a little more pressed for time. 

How might he have told the story if his horizon were not so dark, his demise not quite so imminent? 
I like to imagine that the five wise bridesmaids would have regarded their foolish counterparts in a little softer light, that those who “have” would have been more tender toward the “have-nots,” that there would have been oil enough for all. That is the Jesus I know. That is the world in which we are privileged serve. That is the challenge toward which we press. 

In fact, time is short. Today is the end of someone’s world—whether in fact or in feeling. Does it ever trouble you that there is food enough in the world to feed us all, but some starve because the distribution system is skewed our way? Does it ever bother you that the safety and peace we take for granted is unimaginable for those who live in the path of war? Is your sleep ever disturbed by the inequities among us—inequities of wealth and nutrition, housing and education, inequities even of oil? 

The church is straining toward the end of its year, our message growing more urgent. Christ is King and some have not yet met him. Christ is King and some do not know his peace. Christ is King and some are oblivious to his love. As a bridegroom longs for his bride, fighting off the darkness to gather her close, so Jesus longs for us, fends off the darkness to gather us into his light. 

We are those wise bridesmaids—blessed with light and warmth to share. We are those who look forward to the last day when the bridegroom will arrive, when the trumpet will sound, when, as the song says, “The clouds be rolled back like a scroll.” We say that we long for all souls to be well, all rivers to run with peace, all sorrows washed out to sea. But do we? 

November 9, 2014. It is the end for some, a beginning for others. It is in our power, as disciples of Jesus Christ, to light the way of those who are lost. Look, the bridegroom is at hand. Together, we go to meet him.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

The Festival of All Saints - 2 November 2014

MT 5.1-12 
JoAnn A. Post 

When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. 2Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying: 
3"Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 
4"Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. 
5"Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. 
6"Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, 
for they will be filled. 
7"Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. 
8"Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. 
9"Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. 
10"Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, 
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 
11"Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you. 

This morning one billion people engaged in a grand global ruse. We set our clocks back one hour. All summer we said we had been “saving daylight,” and now it is time to set the clocks straight. But we’re only fooling ourselves, pretending that we can control time, stave off the darkness, coax the light to last a little longer. Because regardless of what our clocks might say, the sun rises when it will, and the winter dark hems our days ever shorter. 

The only ones not fooled by our chicanery? Children. Dogs. Dairy cattle. 

They don’t care what the bedside alarm clock reads. They wake at the same time they did before, ready to start the day. Good friends tell of a morning years ago when their youngest was five years old. They had told him, the night before the clocks changed, that he could sleep in, that they didn’t have to get up so early to go to church, that it would be fun. But sure enough, my friends woke at o’dark thirty the next morning to find their little footy-pajama clad boy at their bedside. “Mommy, I tried, but I’m all out of sleep.” He wasn’t fooled. 

The Day-We-Turn-the-Clocks-Back and All Saints Day always share a calendar day. The first Sunday of November. It’s an odd pairing. While our clocks tell us a lie, the church tells us the truth. The truth, not only about time, but about our lives. 

That truth? All our lives end. And before they do, they are burdened with hunger and thirst, scorching heat, and tears in every eye. (Revelation 21) We live the lives of orphans—isolated and alone, unknown and afraid. (1 John 3) We experience all the curses Jesus names: poverty, grief, humility, persecution. (Matthew 5) Surely, those hardships are not the sum of our lives, especially in this country. But for each of us at some point, and for most of the world’s poor every day, those hardships are real. 

Is it any wonder we work so hard to fool ourselves, to stave off the darkness, to pretend death won’t knock on our door? We prefer the game to the truth. 

I put a name in the list of saints for whom we pray today, the name of a man whose life and death witnessed, not to the game-playing and denial in which most of us engage, but to the truth of God’s light, God’s life, God’s promises. The blessedness of the life of faith. 

It was Easter afternoon. We had just finished our Paschal Feast at home, when the phone rang. It was his wife, the tears in her voice making it difficult to understand. But I was able to catch words here and there: “took a turn,” “hospice,” “come.” I was out the door faster than Peter Cottontail hopping down the Bunny Trail. When I arrived at their home, it was full of people. Children and grandchildren, home for Easter, milled around the house and yard, unable to settle, even to speak. Their Dad had been ill for some time, but about noon it was as though somebody pulled the plug on a drain, and his life started to seep away. 

I found him and his wife in their bedroom. She hugged me at the door; he acknowledged me with his eyes. We talked for a time, prayed and sang; I asked him if he was okay about what was happening. He nodded. It was Easter, after all, the day when Life overcomes Death, and he was ready to be raised from the pain and sorrow he had known for too long. The room was quiet. He dozed. His wife held his hand. We waited. 

Suddenly the bedroom door burst open. One of their adult children shouted, “It’s too quiet in here!” And she fell on her father, “Dad, you’re not dying! Talk to me! You’ll be fine!” And to me, “Get out and leave him alone. He was fine until you got here.” 

He died ten days later, lingering longer than we expected. But in those ten days he prepared us for his death, especially his daughter, so angry and afraid. His mourners were blessed, for having witnessed such a faithful life, a faithful death. 

Somehow we imagine we are immune to death and suffering, that we will be spared what is, in fact, inevitable. It’s a game we play with ourselves, like moving the hands of the clock to pretend it’s not so dark outside. 

“Blessed are you,” Jesus said. His audience was ill-prepared for his words. The poor among them had come to Jesus for a meal, perhaps a miracle. The rich among them had come to introduce themselves, to hand Jesus a business card, to say to this rising religious star, “Let’s do lunch.” But Jesus knew them all, and he knew that whether they were clothed in rags or Ralph Lauren, their lives were the same. And he named them, all of them, “Blessed.” 

How is that? How can it be that those life circumstances from which we run, are marks of blessing? 
In the next few weeks, we will be inviting you into conversation about our congregation’s life: our dreams and plans, our needs and expectations. Part of our conversation will be about wealth—about sharing our abundance, through this church, with the world. After all, as my mother, herself a generous steward and faithful Bible reader, has reminded me about my own life, “To those whom much has been given, much will be expected.” (Luke 12.48) 

But we will also be telling you stories, stories about God’s blessed and living saints who rely on us for a truth they will hear nowhere else. How will they hear of God’s love in a hate-filled world, if not from us? How will they know God’s forgiveness in a spiteful world, if not from us? How will they experience God’s abundance in a stingy, clawing world, if not from us? How will they come to believe that death is not to be feared, if not from us? 

All the world plays the game, and so do we sometimes. We pretend that trouble happens to other people, that our lives are good because we work so hard, that death is an enemy against whom we must wage war. 

But today we tell the truth. Remember the words in the marriage vows: in joy and in sorrow, in health and in sickness, for richer, for poorer, for better, for worse, in life and in death. Those mixed life experiences become blessings because we face them together, because we see them coming, because we know they are opportunities for God to work in us and through us. Speaking truth to a self-deceiving world. 

Right about now your stomachs are growling because, though the clock says it is not yet noon, your body knows otherwise. 

But we will not be fooled—not about time, not about life, not about death. Because we belong to God, we are, in all these things, most blessed. 

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Reformation Sunday - 26 October 2014

JN 8.31-36 
JoAnn A. Post 

31. Then Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, "If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; 32. and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free." 33. They answered him, "We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean by saying, 'You will be made free'?" 
34. Jesus answered them, "Very truly, I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. 35. The slave does not have a permanent place in the household; the son has a place there forever. 36. So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed. 

The right combination of chemicals and compression can fling a rocket out of our atmosphere and into outer space. 

Once upon a time, it is said, a thousand ships were launched for the sake of Helen of Troy’s beautiful face. 

500 years ago, the world was plunged into one of the bloodiest eras in history—the Thirty Years’ War, ignited by a prayer. 

That prayer? 

“Lord, help us obliterate our enemies?” No. 
“Lord, make our commanders smart and our steeds swift?’ No. 
“Lord, keep us steadfast in your word.” 

The Thirty Years War, fought between 1518 and 1548, was launched by conflict between Roman Catholics and Protestants over the authority of God’s Word. That religious battle morphed into a geo-political conflict among the great powers of Europe. Its cost? Three million lives, disease on a scale unseen since the plague of the middle ages, and national unrest that would not be righted for a hundred years. All because of a prayer. 

In some parts of the church Reformation Sunday is occasion for celebration and chest thumping bombast, as though God is a prize to be won. In other parts of the church it is unknown—I promise you our brothers and sisters at St. Phillip’s aren’t celebrating Reformation Day. But perhaps the most faithful stance toward this annual observance is humility. 

The struggle we now call the Reformation started, not as a violent insurrection, but as an earnest desire on the part of Martin Luther and others to offer the church a new vision of God. The church of Luther’s day was a scary place—ruled by unhealthy alliances between popes and princes, the church encouraged people to be afraid of an Angry God who needed to be bribed into forgiveness. But Luther and the reformers, through their diligent study of scripture, knew God not as a vindictive, power-hungry, war-inciting tax collector, but as a creative force, a loving father, a merciful judge. 

Two principals emerged from the Reformation, principals which guide the church to this day. In Latin class you learned these two concepts as “Sola Gracie” and “Sola Fida.” Only Grace. Only Faith. Not popes. Not indulgences. Not limbo. Not guilt. Not pride. Only God’s passionate undeserving love for sinners, and our grateful trust in that love. 

You would think this gracious love, these simple Reformation principals, would have set the whole world at ease. That billions of people would heave a great sigh of relief—“God loves us as a parent loves a child. We have nothing to fear.” That world leaders would lay down their war plans and weapons, modeling their leadership on God’s benevolence. That billionaires and the desperately poor would share with one another their wealth and poverty so that no one lacked and no one lavished. After all, what could we possible need or worry about if God loves us without condition, if all God asks is that we trust? If only it were that simple. 

Over the years, our household has known its share of blessings and curses, as have all of yours. But when I count the tears we have cried, more of them were for joy than for sorrow, so we’re fine. One of the things we have always marveled at is that we have never lacked for what we needed. Sometimes it was not clear from whence our help would come, but we have never been without a meal to eat or a place to sleep, we have not gone a day without encouragement and kindness. You would think that, by now, we would have completely forgotten how to worry, since all our worries have been for nothing, all our needs are known. Only Grace. Only Faith. What more could we need? 
On Friday we signed a contract to purchase a home near here, and in a few weeks the sale of our home in Connecticut will be final. (We’re not leaking any more information than that, so don’t try. It feels like a Rube Goldberg contraption, one misplaced signature and the whole thing might collapse.) You would think, given our experience of God’s durable care that I would be sleeping like a baby. And I have been—if the baby in question is teething and colicky and hungry and wet. Then, yes, I’ve been sleeping exactly like that irritable infant. 

All night long I do the math—mortgages and interest rates and what-if-one-of-the-deals-falls-through. My dreams have been of appraisals and inspections, moving trucks and 46-page loan documents. Moving to a new home here means leaving another home behind—and friends as dear to us as our own lives. 

Occasionally, my midnight musings are interrupted by remembrances of what I have been teaching and believing for decades: God is faithful; we need only trust. Only grace. Only faith. But those hard-won truths are quickly crushed by the weight of worry I have chosen to carry. 

I have always believed that Lutheran theology and scripture study are a gift to the world. Of course, they are not for everybody. There is still a brisk market for God who alternately judges and rewards, who keeps track of who’s been naughty and who’s been nice. But though our voice is small and sometimes hard to hear, the word we offer from our experience of God cannot be stifled. 

Ancient scripture texts heard today speak of God who writes a promise of faithfulness on our hearts (Jeremiah 31), of Jesus Christ who lays the law aside for the sake of mercy (Romans 3), of a home where all of us are free sons and daughters of God (John 8). 

Five hundred years ago the world went to war because someone dared posit a God who loves all indiscriminately, who forgives freely, who asks nothing of us but trust. Millions of people died in the struggle over who gets to own God’s face in the world. And I fear millions more since then have lived lives of fear and discouragement, trying to please a God who wants only to love them. 
And here we are. A lone loving voice in a community and a world that whips us to work harder, amass more Twitter followers, worry incessantly, make more money, wage more efficient war. Toward what end? 

Perhaps Ascension can offer that war-inciting prayer, “Lord, keep us steadfast in your word.” Perhaps Ascension will be that place where hearts are etched with God’s promises, where our only law is love, where God’s sons and daughters—all of them—are welcome. 

We are all about grace. We are all about faith. We are all about that God. 

Sunday, October 19, 2014

19 Pentecost - 19 October 2014

MT 22.15-22 
JoAnn A. Post 

Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap Jesus in what he said. 16. So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, "Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. 17. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?" 18. But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, "Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? 19. Show me the coin used for the tax." And they brought him a denarius. 20. Then he said to them, "Whose head is this, and whose title?" 21. They answered, "The emperor's." Then he said to them, "Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor's, and to God the things that are God's." 22. When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away. 

He sat silently in his desk as the rest of us stood, sweaty hands over our steady hearts, reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. I never really wondered about his mute presence in our second-grade morning ritual. I was too busy admiring the boy two rows over, a hunk-a-hunk-a-burnin’ grade school love. But sometimes, on the playground, the other boys would push him around, call him names, make fun of his parents. 

I later learned that my silent classmate was a member of the Jehovah’s’ Witnesses, an American sect that refuses to pledge fealty to any but the one they call “Jehovah God.” Out of loyalty to the Kingdom of God, which they believe to be a literal governing agency, they will not pledge to any flag, fight in any war, worship any but Jehovah God. Their refusal to express patriotism has caused them to be persecuted—often by Christians like us, who have a hard time keeping in perspective our love of God and of country.. It was not long before my classmate and his family moved away, probably seeking religious freedom. Odd, since they lived in a country that preaches religious freedom for all—as long as they agree with us, I guess. 

This morning’s Gospel reading is one in a series of five controversy texts in Matthew, stepping stones—or traps—on Jesus’ way to the cross. Jesus has already been attacked by the chief priests and scribes, the Pharisees and Sadducees, and this morning by an unlikely alliance: Pharisees, the equivalent of canon lawyers, and Herodians, a political party rabid in their support of Rome. Under any other circumstances, the Pharisees and Herodians would have despised each other. The Pharisees worshipped the God of Israel; the Herodians worshipped the emperor. But Jesus was a threat to them both, to both God and Country, so they swallowed their pride and their differences in pursuit of this common enemy. 

It seemed a clever trap, to skewer Jesus with regard to taxes. No matter what he answered, one or the other of his accusers would cry, “Ah ha! We knew it!” and bring him up on charges either of treason or of heresy. One way or the other, both the temple and the tribunal would be free of Jesus. 
But you know how the story goes. Flipping a coin in the air, Jesus saw the image of the emperor on both sides. “This belongs to the emperor,” he said. “Can’t you see his face on it? Give it to him.” 

And, leaning conspiratorially toward the Pharisees, he reminded them of one of the earliest teachings of the faith, that we are created in God’s image, that God’s image is embedded on us as surely as the emperor’s was on the coins in their pockets. “This,” pointing to them, “and this,” pointing to the world around them, “all of this bears God’s image. It all belongs to God. You know what to do.” 
To whom do we belong? And to whom do we owe our loyalty? Whose image is imprinted on us? It is not only a question for Jehovah’s Witnesses and patriotic zealots; it is not only a party game for Pharisees and Herodians. Whom do we worship and to whom do we owe our loyalty? Three short stories: 
Walter was a silently proud WWII veteran, a tank gunner in the Battle of the Bulge. His hard-earned medals and framed commendations filled the walls of their living room. When Walter’s wife died suddenly, he was shocked at how much work it was to plan a funeral on short notice. So one day, he called me and ordered my presence, “I want to plan my funeral. Come today.” So I did. 
We talked about texts and music, flowers and eulogies, burial and pall bearers. It was a congenial conversation until he said, “On my casket? The American flag. Not that white blanket you threw over Marian, some baptismal nonsense. I was born an American and I’ll die an American. I’ll sleep forever under that star spangled banner.” 
Jeannie’s parents worked at the local factory, both of them pulling multiple shifts to support their small family. There was enough money for what they needed, but nothing more. If she wanted something special, she had to earn the money for it herself. That’s how she bought her junior prom dress, and her first car, and paid for a four-year college degree. 

The fear of “not enough” plagued her into adulthood, and, like Scarlett O’Hara, she vowed she would never be poor again. Passing up opportunities and chances, Jeannie worked the same job for 35 years. It was boring, but it was steady and steady was okay with her. When she retired, her pension accounts were comfortably full, her house paid for, and her elderly parents settled in a lovely facility nearby. Friends invited her to travel, to buy a fun car, to take a chance or two. But, all those years of scrimping and saving had left their mark. That money she had saved didn’t belong to her. She belonged to the money. 
They were a traditional farm family. Everyone in the household had their chores, divvied up by gender. Men did the field and livestock work; women kept the house and fed the men. Most of the local kids—boys and girls—stayed in the farming community, replicating their parents’ lives. Their daughter didn’t realize how deep those patterns went, how proudly her parents clung to the American Gothic image of the farmer and his dutiful wife. When, after college, she felt called to pastoral ministry, she expected some push-back—it was unconventional all those years ago. But who wouldn’t be proud of a child who wanted to be a pastor? Her parents. They yelled and threatened, cried and criticized. Finally, came the ultimatum. “If you do this, you’ll no longer be our daughter. Pastors are men. You can marry one, but you can’t be one. You have to choose.” 
To whom do you belong? What do you worship? 
This morning we sing the answer. Remember our opening hymn? 

You servants of God, your master proclaim, 
and publish abroad his wonderful name. 

In a moment we will sing: 

Then, hear, O gracious Savior, accept the love we bring. 
That we, who know your favor, may serve you as our king. 

At the end of our table prayer, we say “Amen!” to this radical claim: 

Through Jesus all glory and honor is yours, 
Almighty Father, with the Holy Spirit, 
in your holy Church, 
both now and forever. 

The question of ultimate allegiance applies to more than flag pledges and federal taxes. Some of us worship a person or the past, a bank balance or an idea. But none of those gives life. And none of those things is worthy of our praise and faithfulness. 

Ancient coins bore the image of the emperor, so they belonged to him. We, on the other hand, bear the image of another. We bear the image of God. To whom, then do you belong? And how shall we live? 

Sunday, October 12, 2014

The Parable of the Wedding Banquet

18th Sunday after Pentecost
MT 22.1-14
JoAnn A. Post

Once more Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying: ‘The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son. He sent his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding banquet, but they would not come. Again he sent other slaves, saying, “Tell those who have been invited: Look, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet.” But they made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business, while the rest seized his slaves, maltreated them, and killed them. The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city. Then he said to his slaves, “The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.” Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests. 

 ‘But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe, and he said to him, “Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?” And he was speechless. Then the king said to the attendants, “Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” For many are called, but few are chosen.’

Our older daughter is marrying the Nicest Guy in the World next spring. She brought a number 
of potential candidates to our home over the years—some were smart, some were handsome, 
some were real head-shakers. But this one, the winner in her eyes and ours, is both smart and 
handsome, and, best of all, he loves our daughter and she loves him. Their union is worth 

Theirs will not be what most would call a “traditional wedding”, that is, it will cost less than 
$75,000 and Jerry Springer will not be there. Maybe it’s because both our girls grew up hearing 
wedding horror stories at the supper table that neither of them dreams of an enormous gala. They 
heard about the bride who yelled at her future mother-in-law, dying of breast cancer, for not 
getting a new wig for the wedding. The groom caught kissing his old girlfriend in the cloakroom 
at the reception. The family that spent $25,000 on a gown, but refused to pay the organist. Or, 
my recent favorite, the bride who was loathe to let her recently-widowed mother walk her down 
the aisle because, even in grieving middle age, her mother was very pretty and, the bride wept, 
“I’m supposed to be the prettiest girl at my wedding. What if they look at my Mom instead of 

The wedding to which Matthew invites us is a classic. The guests are homicidally ungrateful—
and soon dead. The host has anger management issues. Those who ultimately grace the wedding 
banquet are mightily confused at being invited at all. And the last one in was the first one out—
booted because of a wardrobe malfunction. In a favorite pastor’s game of “I Presided at the 
Worst Wedding,” Matthew always wins.

I am really uncomfortable with the picture Matthew paints, this picture of the Kingdom of God 
in which everyone behaves badly. I thought that in the Kingdom of God, everyone got a second 
chance; that God—presumably the host in this parable— was slow to anger and abounding in 
steadfast love. I thought that, in the Kingdom of God, the least are most honored. None of that is 
true in this tale. It is a tragic story which follows directly on the heels of last week’s awful 
reading about the vineyard owner and his wicked tenants. (Remember the tenants who stole the 
grape harvest, killed the landowner’s son, and were themselves eviscerated?)

I don’t like this portrayal of us, as ungrateful invited guests. I really don’t like this portrayal of 
God. And who wants to be citizen of a kingdom in which failure to perform is so decisively and 
permanently punished?

I have to believe that Jesus was doling out a heaping helping of hyperbole—making his point in 
an exaggerated, outrageous, almost unpalatable way. For example, it is highly unlikely that a 
whole gaggle of wedding guests would fail to appear, and that the father of the groom would 
subsequently slaughter them. It is highly unlikely that the king would haul strangers off the street 
into his party, or that one of them would be tossed back out on the street for lack of appropriate 
attire. This is simply not plausible. So what point is Jesus trying to make? And who are his 
intended hearers? Because, surely, he can’t be serious that this Wedding War is an image of the 
Kingdom of God.

When pastors gather to chat, the conversation is always the same. Dwindling worship 
attendance. Declining dollars. All our congregations suffering a slow and persistent leak. People 
smarter than I have tried to diagnose the problem—you can Google their findings. But, if you 
strip the Bloody Banquet of its gore, Jesus has, in fact, given us the antidote to the illness, the 

Week after week in this beautiful building, we hear of God’s abundant and unmerited love for us. 
We are reminded that forgiveness is free. We are promised that nothing can separate us from the 
love of God. We believe that all are welcome. It is all true. But we have heard it so often we 
have come to take it for granted. God’s grace and mercy are as exciting to us as gravity. As 
novel as noodles. As ordinary as air. 

So imagine that the king in the parable has been as gracious to his friends and neighbors as God 
has been to us—that the castle door is always open, his table always full, that every day in his 
castle was “Y’all Come!” Day. Among the friends of such a generous king, an invitation to a 
wedding banquet would be no surprise, no gift, no delight. “We can eat there any day,” the 
guests might say. “We’ll catch the wedding on YouTube tomorrow.”

So what’s the connection between God and the king, between the guests and us, between the 
Kingdom of God and the Church of the Ascension?

Think about it. God gives all of this to us for free. All we have to do is breathe to receive these 
gifts. But God would enjoy our company once in a while. Likewise, the king was delighted to 
throw a party, excited to welcome his friends. All he asked was that they show up, that they give 
some indication that they shared his joy. But they didn’t and neither do we.

In my last parish, one of our young families transferred their membership to a larger church 
across town. When I called to check on them, to say I missed them, to ask what had attracted 
them to their new congregation, the mother said, “They have a ball pit and a bouncy house at 
Sunday School every week. The kids love it!” I was speechless.

Of course, they can worship anywhere they want, and our humble congregation was not to 
everyone’s taste. But to leave a congregation where they were known and loved, for a place that 
lured small children with a circus every week—it still leaves me slack-jawed. Boundless grace 
and mercy were not enough for them? Love and welcome bored them? For a moment, after that 
phone call, I understood the anger of the murderous king. “Are you kiddin’ me?”

Did the king, does God, ask too much? Our presence at the table. Acknowledgment of the 
invitation. Delight. Just a little delight would send God over the moon. Is it any wonder Jesus 
was angry at the Pharisees and chief priests, these passive hearers? Day after day they listened to 
him, experienced the gifts God gives for free. And day after day they said, “Meh. Maybe later.”

Our older daughter is marrying the Nicest Guy in the World. The celebration will be small; the 
arrangements modest. But our delight will drown us and everyone in our wake. Because, for 
some reason that always gives me grateful pause, my daughter and her fiancĂ© realize they have 
received a precious gift, a gift they wish to share with those they love. There will be food and 
drink and music. But mostly there will be gratitude. Gratitude because love has found them. 
Who could resist being invited to a celebration like that?

God wants to celebrate with us the way we, the bride’s parents, want to celebrate with our 
friends. Love has found us. The table is ready. The door is open. All God asks is that we say, 

“Yes. I’m on my way."

Monday, October 6, 2014

17 Pentecost - 5 October 2014

MT 21.33-40 
JoAnn A. Post 

One of the things I missed most about the Midwest while we sojourned in New England was October. Of course, they have October in New England, “Leaf Peeping Season” they call it, but not the October we have here. Growing up on an Iowa farm, October meant falling asleep under a pumpkin moon so heavy it could barely heave itself above the leafless tree tops, lulled by the hum of corn dryers. The flickering lights of combines lumbering up and down the fields after dark. A fine coating of dust on every surface, and in every lung. Mostly I remember a sense of purpose—a year’s worth of planting and planning, worrying and repairing, figuring and fearing was finally paying off. Nobody complains about the long hours or hard work of harvest. My oldest brother, who now farms the family farm, told me once, “October is the whole reason I farm.” 

Today, God is that farmer, that planter, that worrier. But God doesn’t drop corn and soybeans in the ground. God tends vines. Ancient, stout, wandering vines. Heavy-with-grapes vines, thick-as-your-arm vines, feed-the-family vines. It’s hard work tending a vineyard, hauling in the harvest, turning fruit to wine for drinking and security for the family. But, like a haven’t-slept-in-days-but-still-smiling Iowa farmer, God doesn’t mind the hard work. God is doing what God loves to do. Growing. Providing. Nurturing. It’s always October for Our Farmer Who Art in Heaven.

And what is it that we do? We are tenants, workers in the field, honorable and grateful servants. Better even than being a tenant though, to be God’s grape, carefully tended, wisely pruned, essential for life. If you were God’s grape, wouldn’t you leap into the harvester’s basket, squeeze yourself against brother and sister grapes, pour yourself into the waiting vats? You’d think so. Isn’t that what grapes are for? Isn’t that how the story ought to end? Weary workers and stomped grapes and bulging vats? 

Ah, the metaphor. My favorite biblical device. A literary sneak attack, preying on the unexamined and unaware. Jesus’ hearers nodded along with his story. They knew vineyards. They knew landowners like the one Jesus described—wise people who poured heart and soul and cash into the ground. Planting crops, building fences and watch towers, digging a wine press, leasing to tenants. It was an unremarkable story Jesus told. But his tale suddenly took a dark turn, a turn as dark and scheming as the one his hearers secretly plotted for him. 

Jesus continued spinning the story, describing the tenants of the wise landowner as wicked, selfish, grasping people. Clueless about all the landowner had done for them. They were ungrateful and small. Over the course of weeks and months, as they begrudgingly pruned and weeded and plucked, they forgot to whom the vineyard belonged. They forgot they were tenants. They forgot they had been called there to work. For someone else. That is why, when harvest time came, they killed the truck drivers who came to collect the grapes—twice. That is why, when the owner’s only son came to reason with them, they slaughtered him. 

No longer grateful tenants, they had talked themselves into believing all that abundance and wealth not only belonged to them, but was their own doing. “Look what we have done!” they  boasted as they hacked their way through the terrified truckers. “Imagine how wealthy we will be,” they howled, as they chased the horrified owner’s son through the vineyards. “Aren’t we smart,” they chortled, as they put all their grapes in one basket, counted their profits before they were aged. 

At what point in the story do you suppose Jesus’ hearers—wicked tenants disguised in Pharisee’s clothing—caught on to the conceit? And at what point did they draw back in horror—fearful that Jesus would deal with them as the landlord had dealt with his tenants, as they intended to deal with Jesus himself? 

Here’s their horror. If they were the wicked tenants of the story, metaphorically speaking, heads would roll, metaphorically speaking. That is, if God were as small-minded and vengeful as they. But that is not how God rolls. Tenants don’t get what they deserve—not even the wicked ones. 
I am now five days on the job as your pastor. So far I have unpacked boxes and moved furniture, forgotten computer passwords and most of your names, idled for hours on the Dan Ryan, and watched you at work. 

I like what a see. There is a generous spirit here, easy laughter, a wealth of experience and wisdom, and a deep love for this place. This particular vineyard is filled with hard-working tenants. But I know congregations, and I know how quickly they can turn from vineyards full of grateful servants to fortresses dedicated to self-preservation. Is that a danger here? I don’t know yet. 

I’ve been watching the world, too. I fear wicked tenants are taking over God’s vineyards in other places. In the vineyard that is Chicago, we spend millions of dollars in pursuit of personal political gain, ample funds for everything—except for troubled families and education and food and safety. In distant vineyards, evil tenants have taken to sawing off heads to make some kind of twisted point, and soldiers fear for their own lives even as they try to protect others. A virus decimates whole families, shuts down whole countries, and we blame the victims for getting sick. The landowner has been away too long; the tenants have gone to seed; the only harvest we will reap is blood and tears. 

But, for God, it is always October. God is still planting and digging postholes, pressing grapes and watching for danger. God is still calling workers to the vineyard because there is still work to be done. And God continues to send the Son, the only Son, the rightful heir to God’s fortune, who chooses to work among us, risking his own life for our sake. 

Jesus’ parable is a cautionary tale, a too-close-for-comfort reminder that we are tenants, beholden to and dependent on Another for shelter and sustenance and life itself. We do not create or sustain our own lives; all that we have and all that we are is from God. Even this place—it exists only to extend God’s work in the world, not so that we might grow fat and sassy, smug and self-congratulatory. Friends, this is God’s Garden, not our own. 

In God’s Garden there is enough for all. 
In God’s Garden everyone has work to do. 
In God’s Garden no one is greater or lesser, all are servants. 

We have been called to work side-by-side in in this gorgeous garden, this lush vineyard, this ripe field; tenants eager to labor not for our own gain, but for the glory of God and the strengthening of God’s people. 

It is October. The harvest is ready. God is hiring. And we have work to do.