Sunday, October 18, 2020

Amazing Rhetoric


October 18, 2020 – The 20th Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 24A

© 2020 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon can be heard here. Video of the entire service can be seen here. (Sermon begins around 22:45.)

“Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” When the Pharisees heard what Jesus said, they were amazed, and they left him and went away. Matthew tells us that they were amazed. But what do you think that means?

In English, our word “amaze” comes from a Middle English word (amasen), which means to bewilder or perplex. In other words, Jesus stunned them with his words. He confounded them. He bested them. And, since they knew that they had been beaten, they went away, ashamed.

But in Greek, the language in which the New Testament was written, the word (thaumadzo) carries a different connotation. Its root (thauma) is the word for miracle, and it means to wonder or marvel. The Pharisees were amazed. They marveled and wondered at what Jesus had said. They were impressed. And, since they knew that they had encountered something remarkable, they went away, in awe.

Because Matthew goes out of his way to let us know that the Pharisees were out to get Jesus—that they were plotting to entrap him and that they came to him with malice—we naturally assume that what happened between them was a confrontation from which there can be only one winner. We, too, are impressed by Jesus’ rhetorical skill, and, knowing who the bad guys are in the story, we are quick to credit Jesus with a resounding victory. But maybe we should hear this encounter a different way.

In his gospel account, Matthew is fond of the word “amaze,” using it ten different times. And each time it reveals a moment of conversion. The disciples were amazed when Jesus stilled the storm and when he withered the fig tree—both signs of the divine power working within him. The crowds were amazed when Jesus cast out evil spirits. Pontius Pilate was amazed when Jesus uttered not a single word in self-defense. Even Jesus himself was amazed when the Roman Centurion showed enough faith to trust that Jesus could heal his sick servant from a distance. When Matthew uses the word “amaze,” he does so to show the reader that something has changed within the heart or mind of a character in the gospel—that something new has been revealed and understood—and that’s what’s going on within the hearts and minds of the Pharisees, who came to Jesus in order to put him to the test but who left with something new to think about.

When we read this passage, we usually think that the Pharisees put Jesus in an impossible spot. “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor or not?” they asked him. But what’s so hard about answering that? We are told that the Pharisees took some of the Herodians with him—people who were loyal to the puppet regime that the Romans had set up in Palestine. But they wouldn’t have been surprised to hear a firebrand rabbi talking big about refusing to pay the emperor’s taxes. Sure, they could have used such a statement against him in legal proceedings, but, by this point, Jesus was already in Jerusalem for a showdown with the authorities. What did he have to lose? Why not just tell them what they wanted to hear? Why not say, “This land was promised to our ancestor Abraham. It belongs to us. I have come to take back David’s throne. Let’s show the emperor where he can put those taxes!”? Why not say the thing that nearly everyone wanted to hear? Because you can’t make God’s kingdom come by throwing gasoline on a fire—even if you’re right. 

We want to win. The stakes are high, and we want to win. We want to show everyone on the other side that they are wrong and that we are right, and that might be true, but what are we accomplishing by shaming those who disagree with us? What does God gain when we demonize those on the other side? Look instead at what Jesus did. When the Pharisees came to him and asked whether it was lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, he asked them for the coin that was used for the tax. He asked them for the coin because, somewhat ironically, he didn’t have one and because he was betting that they would. Then he asked them to name whose head and title were found on the coin, asking them to acknowledge the graven image that had been kept in their pockets. And finally he asked them to decide for themselves how they would navigate the theologically confusing world of living under the authority of a pagan emperor yet refusing to accept the authority of anyone except God alone.

Jesus wasn’t the only one who had to figure this out. They did, too. And, instead of taking a side and scoring some cheap points with the crowd, Jesus held up to his opponents the deeper reality that they all faced together. All of them had to figure out how to be faithful to God while doing everyday things under Roman occupation like carrying around coins and paying taxes. In the end, the Pharisees were amazed. That doesn’t mean that they went away converted to Jesus’ cause. This kind of conversion—this sort of amazement—is more subtle than that. They went away aware of something new—with a new sense that even Jesus, this tradition-challenging, authority-questioning rabbi who threatened everything that they thought mattered, was striving to be faithful to God, and, despite all their expectations, could find a way to invite them to do the same.

Are things all that different for us? We believe that God’s reign has broken through in the life and death and resurrection of Jesus. We believe that, in Christ, God is turning the world upside down. But we can’t make that kingdom come any faster or any more fully by throwing shade on our opponents. As sure as we are that we are on the right side of history, we can’t make God’s kingdom come by besting those who think that we’re wrong. Instead, we have to let God amaze them. We have to invite them to see that God is at work in the people and places where they never expected to find God. We have to ask them to consider what it means to be faithful to God in their own circumstances—not because we know the answer but because we’re all still trying our best to figure that out. Imagine what would happen if, after engaging in serious political, economic, or theological debate, we all walked away amazed—not converted to each other’s side but converted to the possibility that God is at work in all who seek to be faithful. 

Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s and to God the things that are God’s. In the end, you can’t separate the two. But you can be faithful to God in both.

Sunday, October 11, 2020

Celebrate With All You've Got


October 11, 2020 – The 19th Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 23A
Isaiah 25:1-9; Philippians 4:1-9; Matthew 22:1-14

© 2020 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon can be heard here. Video of the entire service is available here. (Sermon begins around 21:50.)

Being too busy to go to a party is so last year, isn’t it? When was the last time you skipped a social event because you hadn’t had a quiet weekend at home in months? I miss those days. I miss feeling the urge to skip a wedding or a birthday party or a baby shower or a dinner because I just want to stay home. How we hear this parable of Jesus depends, in part, on whether we’re hearing it with pre-pandemic ears—back when you and me and everyone I know was busy—or with our current-day ears—when most of us would give up our first-born child for a night out with other adults.

For most of us, I think the first half of this parable sounds like good news. The king threw a big wedding banquet for his son. The original invitees were either too busy or too self-absorbed to make time for the party, but that was good news for everyone else. Except for the extreme behavior of some of the characters in the parable, the setup to the first half is pretty reasonable. Naturally, the king was upset when the first round of guests refused to show up. If anything, his decision to fill the guest hall with whoever could be found—both good and bad—was a remarkable expression of inclusion. This party was too important to allow those who would not come to ruin it, and the latecomers were thrilled to be included.

I don’t know about you, but I’m always grateful when someone offers me their ticket to the symphony or to a sporting event. It’s like having a ticket to the Masters. I can’t imagine why anyone would give up a chance to go to Augusta National, but, if they’re too busy with their farm or their business to go, I’d be happy to take their place. We like that image of the kingdom of heaven. How good it is that our God is willing to fling wide open the doors to that great and glorious banquet so that everyone who wants to be there can find a place at the feast! And, as long as we hear this parable with the ears of those who are grateful to be included, it is good news indeed. At least, the first part is.

But then the parable takes a dark and startling turn. As the king walks through the banquet hall, delighted and relieved that his son’s wedding feast wasn’t a total flop, he notices that one of the guests isn’t dressed appropriately. “How did you get in without a wedding garment?” the king asks, but the guest stares back in stunned silence. In the blink of an eye, everything has changed. The music and dancing stop. No one utters a word. The king orders his servants to bind the intruder hand and foot and throw him out into the outer darkness. What kind of king is that? What kind of God is that? One minute, everyone is raising a glass to toast the generosity of the magnanimous host, but the next everyone is staring at the floor, hoping that the nightmare will end.

If you’re confused, that’s ok. So am I. So is everyone. And I think that’s the point. Sometimes preachers try to explain away the awkwardness of the second half of this parable and, in so doing, rob it of its power. Some claim that the second part didn’t belong with the first but was added on generations later to warn Christians not to give up in the face of persecution. Others try to soften the inexplicable harshness of a host who would expect a last-minute guest to be wearing formal attire by asserting that wedding robes would have been handed out to all of the guests at the door, but there’s no historical evidence that that was the case. No, we’re left with a difficult text that challenges us and our preconceptions of God and God’s reign to their core. And that’s the point. 

We like it when the kingdom of heaven is what we expect. We like it when God behaves the way we want God to behave. We like it when the doors are flung wide open and anyone and everyone is invited to come to the party. But liking that and talking about God like that and telling people that we belong to a church that believes that everyone is welcome isn’t good enough. You don’t get to be a part of the celebration if all you do is show up and watch other people make it happen. And you don’t get to share in the festivities if you decide to stay home and let other people take your place. The kingdom of heaven is like a wedding banquet that a king threw for his son. It doesn’t matter whether you’re the first one to get an invitation or the last one to show up. What matters is that when you arrive you celebrate with everything you’ve got.

Jesus isn’t talking about the kingdom of heaven that is waiting for us when we die. He’s talking about the reign of God that has already broken through into this life. Jesus came to the earth and lived and died and rose again so that you and I and everyone else might have a place at God’s table. But it’s not good enough that we have received an invitation. And it’s not good enough that we show up for the party. It’s not good enough that we wear crosses around our necks. It’s not good enough that we call ourselves Christians. It’s not good enough that we belong to a church like St. Paul’s. It’s not good enough that we believe in our hearts that God’s love belongs to everyone. Our host wants to see that we’re all in. For a celebration this important, anything less than our full participation—anything other than our very best—isn’t good enough.

You can’t believe in a God who welcomes everyone and not welcome everyone yourself. You can’t believe in a kingdom where everyone has a place and not make room in your own heart for whoever wants to come in. We believe in a God who flings wide open the doors to the kingdom. We believe in a God who searches high and low so that everyone might come in. You and I have been given a ticket to the celebration that God is throwing for us and for all people. But the fact that we’ve been included at all is itself a miracle of generosity and love. Like everyone else, we have been given a ticket because God loves us enough to find us and beckon us to come in. In this life—right here and now—being included in God’s great banquet is the most important thing that will ever happen to us. If we can’t find a way to celebrate that and to celebrate it with everyone else whom God has invited in, we’ll be the ones who miss out.

Sunday, October 4, 2020

Bearing Fruit In Another's Vineyard

 October 4, 2020 – Proper 22A
Isaiah 5:1-7; Philippians 3:4b-14; Matthew 21:33-46

© 2020 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon is available here. Video of the entire service can be seen here. (The sermon begins around 23:00.)

When I lived in Montgomery, Alabama, I took night classes at Troy University in my spare time. Although the main campus of the university was located in a small town an hour or so away, Troy had established a satellite campus in downtown Montgomery by purchasing and renovating several out-of-use buildings, including the old Whitley Hotel. Although dormant for decades, the hotel was a majestic building with an elegant lobby and a grand staircase that wound up to the upper floors, and the university did the city a favor by bringing it back to life. 

In the middle of the repurposed lobby was a large and detailed mosaic, which featured the emblem of the university. Legend had it that, not long after Troy bought the old hotel, university officials had the original mosaic painstakingly replaced, tiny tile by tiny tile, to further cement its presence in the urban community. But, when the work was finished, something wasn’t right. Part of the emblem wasn’t exactly the way it was supposed to be, and the university’s president, an exacting sort of woman, insisted that it be done again.

As the artisan chipped up the mistaken portion of the mosaic in order to redo it, the president walked through the lobby and asked the worker how everything was going. Frustrated, the laborer responded with little more than a grunt, so the president asked him what was wrong. Not realizing who it was that was speaking to him, he replied, “Some witch is making me do this all over again,” only he didn’t use the word “witch.” She replied, “Oh really? Well, guess what: I am that witch. Pack up your things. You’re fired.”

When we fail to recognize the authority of those standing in front of us, we shouldn’t be surprised when judgment comes crashing down upon our heads. 

Today’s gospel lesson is all about authority. Will we recognize and respect Jesus’ authority, or will we substitute our own version of right and wrong in its place? As Suzanne noted last Sunday, this chapter of Matthew is filled with expressions of and challenges to Jesus’ authority. First, Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey while the crowd shouted, “Hosanna!” as if he were prepared to claim the throne of his ancestor David. Then, he went straight to the Jerusalem temple, where he turned over the tables of the moneychangers and drove them out of the temple precincts, effectively halting the worship that was taking place there. All the while, the religious authorities watched Jesus perform these prophetic and symbolic gestures, which both questioned their legitimacy and asserted his own authority in their place. Something had to give. The crowds were cheering for the radical rabbi, but, behind the scenes, the people in power were plotting his demise. 

Exasperated and probably a bit nervous, the religious leaders came to Jesus and asked him to explain by what authority he was performing these radical, divisive, and lawless acts. How could a religious figure like him allow himself to be at the center of such unrest? In response, he told them two parables—the parable of the two sons, which we heard last week, and the parable of the wicked tenants, which is our focus today.

“Listen to another parable,” Jesus told them, a parable about a landowner who carefully and deliberately prepared a vineyard before leasing it to some tenants and going off to another country. It must have taken more than a few years of hard work by those tenants before the vines began to produce their fruit. Eventually, though, it was time for the landowner to collect his share of the harvest, so he sent some servants to get what was his due—the portion that had been agreed upon back when the vineyard had originally been leased to those tenants. 

But the tenants weren’t interested in giving up any of the fruit of their labor. They were the ones who had worked hard every day, season after season, bearing the heat of the summer sun, pulling up weeds, pruning back the vines, carefully nurturing the tender shoots until harvest time. They had done all the work, they told themselves, so every bit of the produce should be theirs. They didn’t care whose land it was, who had made all of the improvements to it, who had hired them to take care of it. So they attacked the landowner’s slaves, beating and killing and stoning them. And, when the landowner sent a second group of slaves, even more than the first, they treated them in the same way. Finally, the landowner recognized the need for serious action, so he sent his son, his agent, someone who could officially speak for the family and engage the local officials if needed, but the tenants refused even to respect the landowner’s son. Instead, they convinced themselves that, once the heir was out of the way, the vineyard would be theirs. So they killed him.

No one except for the tenants was surprised at what happened next. Even the religious leaders, to whom Jesus had addressed this hardly masked parable of condemnation, knew what the landowner would do to those wicked tenants. They knew that they would be rounded up and executed for their lawlessness. No matter how firmly they had convinced themselves that their ridiculous plan would work, the tenants were always going to be punished for their refusal to respect the one in whose vineyard they had labored. 

It is a hard message for those of us who prefer our brand of Christianity to be the open, accepting, universal variety to hear Jesus say that the kingdom of heaven will be taken away from someone and given to someone else. But, in an age in which the words of Jesus and the authority of the church are used by some even to legitimize evil, it is a truth that we must confront. 

What does it mean for Jesus to proclaim that God’s kingdom will be taken away from the religious leaders and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom? You may have been taught in the past that this parable is about God’s favor being withdrawn from the children of Abraham and bestowed upon Gentile Christians, but that isn’t true. The church, at times infected with the sin of anti-Semitism, has made that claim, but this parable isn’t about chronology. It’s not about the vineyard being taking away from those who came first and given to those who come second. It’s about the responsibility to be faithful when the opportunity presents itself. 

As the prophecy of Isaiah 5 makes clear, God takes the vineyard away from those who forget whose vineyard it really is—those who forget that God is the one who requires justice and rejects bloodshed, who demands righteousness and will not abide the cry of the suffering. If you read the rest of that chapter of Isaiah, you will see that the people in power had used their authority to take possession of the land of the vulnerable, to throw lavish banquets for themselves while people in the streets were hungry, and to acquit the guilty in exchange for a bribe. Jesus picked up on this image and made it the center of his parable because the religious leaders of his own day had done the same thing. They had forgotten whose vineyard it really was. They had forgotten that the kingdom of God belongs to the poor and the weak and the vulnerable. They had ignored the plight of those who were eager to line the sides of the road and shout, “Hosanna!” as Jesus came into Jerusalem. They had turned their backs on the blind and the lame who Matthew tells us flocked to the temple to be healed by Jesus as soon as he had chased the moneychangers out.

Whose vineyard are we working in? In whose kingdom are we called to bear fruit? Do we recognize the authority of the one who comes to collect the landowner’s due? Or have we been working so long that we have forgotten that the fruit of our labor actually belongs to someone else?

The blind and the lame do not need any help recognizing Jesus as the one who comes to bring God’s kingdom to the earth. The poor and the weak don’t need him to tell them a parable in order to see whose authority he represents. It is always the powerful, the rich, and the well-connected who need to be reminded what sort of reign Jesus has come to establish. On the spectrum that extends from religious elites to social pariahs, I can tell on which end most of us belong. Maybe that’s why we need Jesus more than most people—because, left to our own devices, we might begin to think that this vineyard we inhabit is our own doing, that we are responsible for its produce, and that its bounty belongs to us. It doesn’t. And, as long as we remember that, God will help us bear fruit for the one to whom the kingdom belongs.