December 27, 2010

With a few exceptions, as I see it tonight, everyone here resembles Joseph. Everyone resembles Joseph in this respect: whether we realize it or not, everyone makes plans and everyone dreams. And the reason that we plan and the reason that we dream, I think, are one and the same. That is, di-kai-as-su-nai—righteousness—the righteous life… Have you planned for it? Do you dream about it?

My guess is that you have. My guess is that when it comes to the work you do, to the play that you enjoy, to the families that you help raise and to the friendships that you cultivate—you plan and you dream. Joseph, we are told in the passage, “being a righteous man… planned” to take care of his impregnated fiancé. He planned and resolved to take care of her quietly and discretely—not taking her as his wife of course. That wouldn’t be the righteous thing to do, and like him, you and I have made our countless plans to do the right thing. You’re probably making them right now, as I speak. But I wonder, I wonder if it won’t be later tonight, in the silence of the night, when the real work of righteousness will begin.

In the 2007 movie, Breach, Robert Hanssen had planned out his existence in the greatest detail. As a devout Catholic and as an F.B.I. agent he had arranged the elements of his world so that his wife would give birth to the babies, his colleagues at the bureau would search for the mole, and he, Robert Hanssen, would sell secrets to the Russians. You see, he had it all planned out, and all justified. Of course, if he had to live out a lonely existence without trusting another soul, at least, by his own calculations, he would be righteous.

So, think about Joseph. I’m offering this insight into the real-life espionage escapades of Robert Hanssen because he makes me think of something that Joseph may have considered himself. You see, just prior to his being taken into custody, Robert Hanssen makes this odd little remark. He says to his clerk, “I matter plenty.” And when I heard the actor, Chris Cooper, enunciate that phrase, I could also imagine it on the lips of the betrothed of Mary.

I MATTER PLENTY. Those words in fact may be the most tragic and the most comedic words that anyone has ever uttered. But I bet you they run like tangled threads right through the mind and the heart and the Davidic bloodstream of Joseph and I bet they have crossed your heart and mind as well. Think of it. Who says that you matter plenty? Where does the idea come from—that you matter plenty? And is it based upon what you do in this life—on your performance? Does it arrive in the mailbox at Christmastime? Does it appear on Facebook as your official status? I matter plenty! Or does the truth of you and I mattering in the grand scheme of things depend upon something a little more subversive than Robert Hanssen, and even Joseph, can handle?

Tonight’s activity orbits around a central core and that core is known as the Incarnation. In Jesus of Nazareth, in the child born to Mary and Joseph, God became incarnate. That is, he showed up in the flesh. He mattered. “Man’s maker was made man,” writes St. Augustine of Hippo, that the “Ruler of the stars might nurse at His mother’s breast; that Bread might hunger, the Fountain thirst, the Light sleep, the Way be tired on its journey; that the Truth might be accused of false witnesses, the Teacher be beaten with whips, the Foundation be suspended on wood; that Strength might grow weak; that the Healer might be wounded; that Life might die…”

Now, if we try to plan for a paradox like that, we’re going to miss it altogether. What’s needed, you see, is a dream—the kind of dream that Joseph dreams in Matthew 1:20. And so, if you’re looking to matter and to matter plenty, go to bed tonight pondering these things:

First and foremost, the Holy Spirit. The child conceived in Mary, the teenage mother is there, in the womb, because of the work of the Holy Spirit. You and I do not plan for the Holy Spirit. But if the Spirit exists and still breaths and blows upon the earth, there may be those who operate and act under guidance of something that’s beyond every possible calculation—and so may finally subvert every righteous and self-righteous plan.

Second, Yahweh Saves. The name, Jesus, that we use in English, doesn’t match with the intention of the angel’s message to Joseph. Jesus is actually a Greco-Roman configuration of Yah-shua, or Yahweh Saves. And, you see, the reason that’s important is that this child with this name actually takes up into himself all the saving history that’s gone before. Jesus is surely someone radically new, but his roots sink deeply into every possible past and his branches therefore reach into every possible future there is for us.

And that brings us to the third component of Joseph’s dream, which is the future tense of the phrase, he “will save his people from their sins.” Notice: he won’t save them from the big, bad Romans. He won’t save them from the Russians. He won’t save them from an Asteroid or from an Alien Invasion. What threatens us the most—that from which we need rescue the most—comes not from outside us. It is within us. Jesus will save them from their (own) sins, and us from our own sins.

Please close your eyes and see the fragile face of the infant, Yah-shua. Feel how his little fingers can already grip your hand.

No one, in planning to live a righteous life, will be able to do it alone.
I am not able to do it alone.
But maybe that’s what dreams are for.




December 21, 2010

Enter into the joy. When I first heard that phrase in today’s parable, it seemed a little awkward. No one really enters joy. It’s not really a room or a house or an auditorium or a theme park. Joy, as we understand it, is an emotion, something that we feel in relationship to our circumstances and to the people who surround us. On the other hand, I have entered a junior high cafeteria, where it could be said that I “entered into” fear. There have also been moments, when, in a crowd, I have “entered into” hate. And still there are other settings—intensive care units, funeral homes and courthouses—where I have “entered into” sadness as if it were a thick fog. And so, “entering into joy” may be an odd and awkward thing to say, but maybe it’s the only way to describe what Jesus intends us to experience in his coming reign.

Enter into the joy of your master. That last part helps us to understand a little better. The joy that Jesus has in mind is not something that we conjure up on our own. It’s not something that we invent to keep us from getting bored. The joy of the master is the joy of finding value in what he values. His “property,” therefore, might correspond to God’s mission of seeking and salvaging what’s been lost. And this, you see, brings us to the slaves or servants that Jesus mentions in the passage. If each slave is given a portion of the master’s property—that must mean that the master trusts them. Moreover, if the master has entrusted to them his valuable property, it stands to reason that he is expecting them to begin to understand how he feels about it. And how he feels about it is joyous.

Enter into the joy of your master.

Paul Tournier:
“The most wonderful thing in this world is not the good that we accomplish, but the fact that good can come out of the evil that we do… Our vocation is, I believe, to build good out of evil. For if we try to build good out of good, we are in danger of running out of raw material.”

T. S. Eliot:
“In order to arrive at what you are not/ You must go through the way in which you are not…”

“I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends…” (John 15:15).


December 13, 2010

I agreed. The owners of the delicatessen told me that I would be cutting onions and I agreed. And as first jobs tend to go, cutting onions didn’t really seem that bad. Not nearly as bad as washing dishes. And not even close to the hassle of scooping up dog poop. In fact, in the pantheon of part-time, teenage employment I would have ranked cutting onions somewhere beneath the coveted positions of life guard at the public pool and usher at the local cinema. Think of it. For a whopping one dollar and forty-five cents per hour, all I had to do was wield a sharp, giant blade and thereby reduce bags and bags of thick, round onions into those little juicy, aromatic slivers, the ones that you might find on an Italian hoagie or a Pastrami sandwich. The whole culinary operation depended on me. And if, through that repetitive chopping motion, I began to cry and if those tears dripped their way from my cheek into someone’s order “on the side,” well, the owners of the deli didn’t mind at all. They had agreed. I had agreed. And upon agreements like these the chutzpa, the moxie and the gravitas of the free world continues to hang. Wouldn’t you agree?

In a way, based upon this morning’s passage, I think it’s obvious that Jesus would. Jesus would agree that the workaday world of first century Palestine offered a window or two into the coming world of God’s justice and love, where the tears of every cheek would be wiped away. And whereas some of us find ourselves elbow-deep in slivers of Vidalia, Jesus describes a vineyard scene in which the workers have agreed to harvest grapes for either “the usual daily wage” in verse two, or “whatever’s fair” in verse four.

Symphonésas. Agree with. That word—that image of contractual consent—is the crux of Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 20. That is, when a person moves from receiving and believing the grace of God in Jesus Christ, and when that person is then wondering about what’s next on the agenda, the parable points the way. Moreover, when a society celebrates Christmas with the various agreements of sale, every once in a while, someone will stop and wonder, “but what’s next…? what else is there…?” And on those occasions, the parable of Jesus points toward symphonesas, toward agreeing with…

I had to laugh a few weeks ago when a wide receiver for the Buffalo Bills dropped a pass in the end zone during an over-time game with the Pittsburgh Steelers. He dropped the pass and then, went to the locker room and tweeted God. That’s right. You may not have known that God uses Twitter, but Stevie Johnson used his Twitter account to grumble against God, saying this: “I praise you 24/7 and this is how you do me…”

You see, the confusion here may be something that we all share. We expect that because we praise God a little more than the average Christian that God will slide us a little bonus at the end of the year. But was that the agreement? The parable says that everyone will be paid a denarius, that everyone, no matter how skilled or no matter how many hours they’ve praised God, everyone will receive the agreed-upon sum. And now, the only question is, what is that sum really?

When you and I make the imaginative leap from the vineyard to the kingdom of heaven, what does that wage represent?

In the original movie, The Matrix, Joe Pantoliano plays the character of Cypher who serves on board the cyber-ship, Nebuchadnezzar. Now, if you know anything about the storyline of the film, you know that the world as we see it is a computer generated illusion, and that a demonic computer program keeps human beings alive in order to feed off of their life-energy. Cypher, by contrast, is aware of the delusion. As a member of the crew, and as a citizen of Zion, he is among the many who have agreed to live truly free lives even though that means a terribly sparse kind of lifestyle. Cypher has agreed to what is real… until he gets tired, until he compares his own life with the lives of those deluded people who don’t know that they’re just food for the computer program. And in the end, he makes a deal with Agent Smith and the minions of The Matrix and he tells him, “I don’t want to remember nothing… I want to be rich and I want to be somebody famous.”

Now I’m rehearsing the plotline of The Matrix, not because I believe that computers will take over the world, but because of the “wage” to which you and I have agreed. That is, we have agreed in Christ to live lives that are totally free of jealousy, envy, malice and pride. And that freedom alone is what all of us have been, and are being, paid on a daily basis. The word, “idle,” in the passage is intriguing to me. When people are idle, have you noticed, they are all equally idle together. And it’s only when people go to work that they compare hours and worry about whose getting paid for what.

In our last congregation, there was a middle-aged woman who wanted to sing. She saw herself as a singer, as someone who could, not only lead worship, but sing solos. And she worked at it. She put in lots of time and energy. But in the end, we had to break it to her. She didn’t have those particular gifts. Now, this is where it became hard. We prayed that this person could remain idle, that she didn’t jump into another ministry or another thing to do just to do it. We prayed that she would wait until God’s Spirit came to her and said, here, here is where I want you to live out your freedom in Christ.

May it be so for you and for me at Latah Valley. May we be able to mind our own business and to do it for the wage we agreed to, and that’s all. Amen.


December 6, 2010

K-Mart and Walmart will invite us to do it in nearly every commercial. Little boys and little girls will grow into adolescence and adulthood, doing it on Facebook. When they do it, sports commentators will sound impressive. Historians will do it in order that they may quote the guy who said, “History repeats itself.” In trying to sway public opinion politicians will have to do it on the floor of the Senate. And so, in this morning passage, as Jesus does it, we shouldn’t be surprised.

What I’m talking about this morning is making comparisons. What Jesus does in Matthew 18 and what all conscious and conscientious human beings do on a regular basis is make comparisons. Competitive businesses ask us to compare prices. Little Billy compares his Christmas wish list with the one of his more affluent neighbor: “Dad, can I have a four-wheeler like Preston?” Little Becky examines the waist line of her Barbie Doll and imagines that her body needs to fit the same proportions.
Al Michaels compares the United States Olympic Hockey Team with “A Miracle.” Basketball announcers refer to three-point baskets as “Raining down threes,” or “Boom goes the dynamite.” The United States, which has been in existence for 234 years, is compared to the Roman Empire, which arguably spanned the time-frame of 800 BC to 500 AD. And finally, a senator from Kentucky compares the trillion dollar budget deficit to the number of days since Jesus Christ was born.

Comparisons, comparisons. We cannot make it through the day without overhearing, or formulating a few juicy comparisons.
And the only question, it seems to me, is whether or not any of these comparisons will get us anywhere.

This week, for instance, I participated with Levi and James in a Moran Prairie Elementary School event, in which one of the coaches of the Gonzaga basketball team shared a few thoughts. One of the things he said made me wonder. That is, he compared doing homework in school with preparing for a nationally televised game with Illinois on ESPN. And, you see, while I appreciate how this comparison might have the effect of motivating kids to do their homework, I’d like to take things a step further by saying that the glory of playing a basketball game, however much it’s hyped, is nothing when compared to the glory of forgiving another human being. And Jesus will make this comparison:
“The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts…”

Now the closest experience that you and I have with this comparison is making settlement on the purchase of a house. Back in the first century of ancient Palestine, a few very rich landlords could rack up the debt on the many indentured servants who used to cultivate the land for them. Things, of course, are much different today (he said sarcastically). But I think the kernel of Jesus’ parable is the seriousness with which a lower class person might approach a person of great power and authority. And, you see, although kings and queens don’t factor into our daily lives, I can remember how, on three separate occasions, Sheryl and I seemingly signed our lives away.
I can remember how we showed up at the diligently appointed time and how each duly licensed professional—the real estate agent, the banker and the notary—each had to make him or herself available. I remember how we read the fine print and didn’t understand a word of it. And I remember the sweaty handshake and the nervous “Congratulations!”

Now, listen carefully. Jesus is comparing the seriousness with which we take going to settlement with the settling of our interpersonal relationships… Are you settled? Would you like to be? Have you truly signed on to the genuine, self-sacrificial mercy that God has in his heart and mind? Or are you simply hoping that God’s a jovial Daddy Warbucks with faulty memory? Are you hoping that he’ll blow things off?

My grandmother, Florence Garrison Pyle, once gave me a television set to use in college. Well, actually, there’s more to the story than “she gave.” She typically never used the set except to watch the news at seven o’clock. So, my mother and I rationalized the whole conversation. We visited Grandma Pyle at the Nursing Home, and at the end of the visit, we told her that her T.V. was broken and that we were taking it to be fixed. She looked at us quizzically, and said, “No it isn’t. But you can have it.” Now, I don’t know why that little exchange haunts me so much except that, when I read today’s parable, I recognize a comparable attitude in the servant. And I recognize a comparable attitude when it comes to God and the life of the church. That is, we’re hoping that he’s not paying close attention, that the details of relationships don’t stick with him…
But what if they do? Think about the way that Jesus tells this parable in comparison with the one that we discussed last week—about the prodigal son and his elder brother. In Luke 15, Jesus focuses on the restoration of what’s lost, and the father in Luke 15:20, being filled with compassion, runs to the younger son, and then later, pleads with his older brother. As deeply as this parable calls us to think and to feel, the comparison of God with a loving parent is easy to make. But, you see, in Matthew 18, it’s not so easy. On a sheer emotional level, for example, the king in verse 25 appears very harsh. The text says that, because of the servant’s inability to pay the 10,000 talent-debt, the king is prepared to sell everything—the servant himself, his wife, their children and all their possessions! Can he be serious? Can Jesus be serious?

And, of course, that’s the point. Take this seriously. Take the details of your life seriously. God is into them. And yet, if we ask for God’s patience, if we arrive in worship with an attitude of praise and thanksgiving, if we fall on our knees and say, ‘Dear God, please forgive me’—let’s be very clear about the mercy and the forbearance and the patience that God requires of us in the daily details.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, writing in the 1930’s, once referred to the phenomena of “cheap grace.” In The Cost of Discipleship, he observes that:
“Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves… Costly grace is the sanctuary of God; it has to be protected from the world and not thrown to the dogs… Costly grace confronts as a gracious call to follow Jesus, it comes as a word of forgiveness to the broken spirit and the contrite heart. Grace is costly because it compels (a person) to submit to the yoke of Christ…”
You see, the point of receiving and celebrating God’s forgiveness is not for us to say, “Oh well, that’s what God is supposed to do.” The point is that we receive it like a boat in the midst of a tsunami, like a fortress in the face of a pillaging army of invaders, like a vaccine that’s desperately injected into your heart just when the deadly infection hits your bloodstream… and, to be sure, it’s like a king who releases us from an incredible burden and then fully expects us to behave in a similar way toward others.