Sunday, August 25, 2019

Who Owns the Vineyard?

Who Owns the Vineyard?
Luke 20:9-18
            The beauty of Jesus’ parables is that they still work today.  We might have some trouble with the sheep-based or agricultural-based stories.  Our methods have changed since the first century, but not enough that we miss the point Jesus was trying to make.  His parables are about real people doing real-life things, and we get them.  We can put aside the cultural differences, get to the heart of the story, and let Jesus take us right to the lesson he wanted to get across.
            Have you ever tried to retell one of Jesus’ parables with a modern setting?  The Parable of the Wicked Tenants seems like a good one for that approach.  I’m not going to do that here, but it’s an exercise you might want to try.  The parable of the Prodigal Son also works well.
            Jesus has made his triumphal entry into Jerusalem.  He is spending his days in the temple teaching anyone who will listen.  The people love what they hear.  The religious leaders do not.  They know they will have to silence him or risk losing everything—their position, their fortune, their sumptuous life style—all that sets them apart from the common people and makes their lives worth living.  They know the people resent them, and it won’t take much to turn them to Jesus’ leadership. 
            It is a time of political unrest.  The Zealots are all but in open rebellion against Rome.  If the religious leaders can’t keep peace there will be bloodshed, and some of it might be theirs.  The Romans won’t stand for weak leadership.
            Jesus knows all this, so he tells a story of a wealthy man who entrusts his vineyard to tenants before he takes a long journey.
In due time he wants to receive fruit from his vineyard.  He sends a servant to collect what he is owed.  The tenants assume if they send the servant away empty-handed, they will not have to pay.  They beat him and throw him out.  This happens twice more.  Finally, the owner sends his son, sure the tenants will respect him, realize they can’t escape paying, and the matter will be settled.  Instead, the tenants kill the son, sure that this will end the matter and they will be left in full possession of the vineyard.
            Jesus asks: “What will the owner do?” 
We know what he won’t do.  He won’t let the tenants get away with thievery and murder.  He will punish the wicked tenants and put others in charge.
            The religious leaders know Jesus is casting them as the wicked tenants.  In Jesus’ eyes, they had failed to lead the people to God, failed to be the overseers who would care properly for God’s vineyard.  Instead, they put their own interests first, and destroyed anyone God sent to correct the situation.  Jesus knew he would be the one to die.  As long as he continued to hold the leaders responsible for their actions, he could not escape death.  On the other hand, as long as the crowds gathered around Jesus the leaders couldn’t do anything to him.
            The message for us is the same as it was for first century Judah.  God is not limited to the leadership status quo.  God does not have to keep wicked or incompetent people in charge of God’s people.  At any time God can desert the church as it stands and raise up a new entity to be God’s representative on earth.  That’s what happened in the first century.  The religious leaders triumphed for a time, but they were eventually replaced by the apostles and the Christian church.  Over the centuries the procedure has been the same.  Leadership ceases to function as God’s representatives and is replaced.  We must make sure it doesn’t happen to us.

Sunday, August 18, 2019

A Teacher Affects Eternity"

 “A Teacher Affects Eternity”
Matthew 25:31-46
            The majority of my professional life has been spent in education.  For over fifty years I “labored in the vineyard” of classrooms at every level from early elementary school through graduate college courses.  I still teach, though now within a church setting.  I’m told my sermons are educational.  I guess I can’t help it.  I also lead a Bible study every week.  I say lead rather than teach, since my goal is to have every member participate in the teaching.  Perhaps even that approach is educational.
            The following story comes from a source entitled Apples and Chalkdust, compiled by Vicky Caruana.  This collection is part of a larger one by Richard Carlson, Ph.D.  I want to give credit to those whose work inspires others.
            “A teacher affects eternity; he [she] can never tell where his [her] influence stops.” (Henry Adams)
            Maggie pulled her four-year-old son’s hand a little harder as she hurried him up the sidewalk.  A black pickup truck had slowed alongside them.
            “Who’s that, Mommy?”
            “Let’s keep walking, Maggie said.  Not recognizing the truck, she picked up the pace.
            Just then her son tripped on a stray branch and pulled on Maggie to wait.  As she stopped, the dark glass of the passenger window rolled down and a young man with sunglasses leaned over to get a better look at the sidewalk couple.
            “Mrs. Jensen, is that you?”  Maggie looked up, responding with caution to the distantly familiar voice.  She scooped up her son and took a cautious step back from the street.
            The driver stopped the truck, put it in park, and excitedly ran around to meet her.  Taking off his sunglasses so Maggie could see him better, he said with a touch of disappointment, “You don’t remember me, do you?”
            Apprehension turned to delight as Maggie finally recognized her former student.  “Of course, I do, Jay.  You’re a hard one to forget.”
            “I never forgot you, Mrs. Jensen.  You’re the only one who gave me a chance.”
            Looking at him she could still see the twelve-year-old who fought the system.  As the big, black truck rolled away, Maggie smiled as she read his business card, “Jay Getz, Architect.”
            Even if the results of your labor aren’t immediately apparent, take joy in the fact that your influence reaches further than you know.
            As a parent (although my “children” are now in their fifties), I understand this woman’s apprehension.  We hear of instances where situations like this develop into serious problems for those being followed.
            As a teacher, I know how much I appreciate hearing from a former student about the influence of my teaching.  It always warms my heart.
            As a Christian, I realize that if we take Henry Adams’ statement, and substituted Christian for teacher, we see the relationship of his words to Matthew 25. 
Whenever I contemplate this passage I try to focus on the first half—the positive half.  Still, when I read the second half I have to ask myself, “How much is enough?”  When I think about the life of Jesus Christ, I realize I can never do enough.  There is always room for me to do more to affect eternity, both mine and those I seek to help.

Sunday, August 11, 2019

Jars of Clay

Jars of Clay
2 Corinthians 4:1-12
            For a long time two things have kept me from liking Paul.  The first is the comments he made about women.  When he says “Women, submit yourselves to your husbands,” he loses me.  Statements like this have been used by unscrupulous men to subjugate women, in some cases to abuse them physically, emotionally and psychologically.  One of my former students told me that she tolerated her boyfriend hitting her because his mother and sister convinced her that sometimes women need to be beaten. 
Many men lay their misogynistic behavior at Paul’s door.  I hold him responsible for not being more responsible with what he wrote.  At the same time I realize that this is not the only scriptural concept that has been misinterpreted.
The other problem I have with Paul is his ego.  When he tells his readers to, “imitate me,” he comes across as being full of himself.  Who is he that we should use him as a behavioral example?  Aren’t we supposed to imitate Christ?  Doesn’t Paul say that himself?  Why should we imitate the image instead of the first edition?
But then Paul turns around and says something that demonstrates his humility, and I have to give him credit for realizing that he is no better than anyone else.  Like the rest of us he has faults.  Like the rest of us he doesn’t always express himself perfectly.  Like the rest of us he falls short of the glory of Christ.
Paul begins chapter four of his second letter to the Corinthian church with these words: “Therefore, having this ministry by the mercy of Christ…”  Paul was commissioned by Jesus to be a missionary to the Gentiles.  Jesus met him on the Damascus road, challenged him, called him, and sent him.  Paul spent the rest of his life in that ministry.  He knew this wasn’t his idea, or his choice.  He had been chosen.  He honored that call and gave himself to the one who had changed his life.
For the next five verses Paul talks about the light of the gospel, the light of God that shines through the life, deeds, and words of Jesus Christ to enlighten the world.  This is the message Paul and his companions proclaimed throughout the Mediterranean world.
Beginning in the eighth verse Paul lists his trials and the lack of effect they have had on the efforts of his missionary band.  It’s quite a list.  When we read the account of Paul’s journeys in Acts we find many events that illustrate this list.
Verse seven serves as a transition from the ministry description to the mission description.  “But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us.”
Paul knows he is nothing without the power of Jesus Christ.  It is Christ acting in him and through him that makes his ministry possible.  He may be an excellent mouthpiece for God, but without the gospel he would be nothing more than “a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.”  (1 Corinthians 13:1) 
Gongs and cymbals lack the ability to play melody and harmony.  In their limited way they serve to enhance a piece of music, but they’re not why we go to concerts or buy recordings.  We want to hear voices, violins, trumpets, clarinets—instruments that create beautiful melodies and harmonies.  That is what the gospel does for Paul.  It gives him music that touches the heart.
It isn’t Paul who creates the beautiful music.  It is Christ, working in the jar of clay we call Paul—and in our jars of clay—who brings light and beautiful sound to the world.

Sunday, August 4, 2019

The Sin of Pride

The Sin of Pride
Luke 18:9-14
            “He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and treated others with contempt.”
            Luke recounts the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector.  Both go to the temple to pray.  The Pharisee’s prayer is full of self-congratulation for keeping the law.  He also condemns the tax collector for his sinning.  The tax collector bows his head in shame, and says, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”
            Jesus tells his listeners it is the tax collector who goes home justified in the sight of God.  If the Pharisee receives a reward it is from those who hear him pray—loudly, I imagine—and are impressed by his pious accomplishments.
            The sin of pride is always with us.  It is one of the most subversive and therefore most dangerous of sins.  It is a trap we can easily fall into and be down the rabbit hole of trouble before we know we’ve fallen in.
            I believe we sometime misread, or misinterpret, David’s words in Psalm 8.  He says (vv. 4-5), “What is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him?  Yet you have made him a little lower than the angels, and crowned him with glory and honor.”
            In the next verse David lists more of the blessings God has bestowed upon humankind, but the picture in vv.4-5 is clear enough—as long as we remember the first three words:  What is man?  We sometimes act as if we deserve the high position God has given us, in the words of some, believing we are the crown of creation. 
            Nothing can be farther from the truth.  We, either individually or as a species, have done nothing to deserve God’s favor.  We are the created ones, not the creator.  We are mere blips on the radar of the cosmos.  It is only God’s favor that gives us value.
            What are we indeed?  We’re not the strongest of animals, nor the fastest.  We are—as far as we know—the most intelligent, though the way many of us behave that could easily be called into question.  We overrate our intelligence.  Yes, it gives us the ability to solve complex problems, but if we don’t use that ability wisely our solutions can come back to hurt us, as we have learned with the harnessing of atomic power.
            Our intellect and wisdom are gifts from God.  The psalmists make this clear.  All our good gifts come from the God who created us and sustains us.
            The Pharisee could see only his accomplishments.  To him they looked grand.  How proud he felt that he was able to keep the law so well!  How superior he felt to the lowly sinner standing off by himself, head bowed, perhaps crying tears of shame for the life he had led.  The Pharisee was looking in the wrong direction.  Compared to the tax collector he looked good by human standards; but Jesus always makes us examine ourselves against divine standards.  When we compare ourselves to God we see how meagre our accomplishments really are.  Our trophy cases look small, and our trophies are tarnished.
            Proverbs 16:18 says, “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.”  We know that less than fifty years after Jesus’ time on earth ended, Jerusalem was destroyed and the Pharisees disappear from history.  Unfortunately, the Pharisaical way of looking at humanity has not disappeared.  It’s a battle we have to keep fighting if we are to be justified in God’s sight.