Food for Thought-Matthew 21:33-46 I Despise This Parable

I despise this parable. I really do.  And there are better ways Jesus could have discussed being rejected, much better.

You would think that after the first set of slaves were killed; red flags would have gone up all over the place. The authorities would have been called. Arrest warrants would have been issued. What kind of fool would send more people, once again into the breach, after others have been killed, to simply die over the acquisition of produce in the form of rent? Is one life worth a single fig, olive, or grape? When the bloodshed has now spread to a Jonestown, Waco, name your mass murder like level, instead of calling of this insanity, instead of calling in the army, the riot police, or some overwhelming mass force to exact vengeance on those who murdered his slaves and now hold his fruit hostage, this crazed land owner decided to send his son to be murdered. We actually see the irrational thought processes at work in this madman’s head. Surely, these people who have already decapitated and massacred dozens of people will respect the life of my son. Don’t they know who I am? The people who have no respect for the life of slaves will surely respect the life of my son. Then, the bloodshed will end. The figs and grapes will be freed and the bloodshed will end. The madness of slaves being murdered by tenants will surely stop because these people who have committed such acts would never do the same thing to my son because they clearly understand he is my son.

I’ll tell you what we clearly understand. The landowner is as insane as the wicked tenants doing the killing. The old fool doesn’t grasp this reality: for some people, the people he initially hired, life his no value. He was a poor judge of character and the blood of his slaves and his son will ultimately be on his hands. Secondly, the landowner is a coward. Why is he the last to go? If he’s so big and bad, if he want his money, why doesn’t he go first?  Or is he too much of the fat cat landowner?  He’s got slaves and help for that.  Mister landowner man doesn’t do things like the help are supposed to do, does he?  Why didn’t the landowner go as soon as the first slave was murdered? Why is it that the landowner is only the punishment of last resort? He will “put those wretches to a miserable death”. Had he really be concerned about his rent, his fruit, his employees, and his family, he would have never left and gone to “another” country in the first place. Had he really cared, he would have taken action when the first slave was murdered. Had he really cared, he would have never sent his son to do the job he should have gladly done in the first place.

I despise this parable.

Food for Thought-Moral Calculus:Understanding the 10 Commandments

One of the functions of Calculus is to provide a means for determining the variations in an object’s (or substance’s) acceleration or deceleration at any given moment.  How fast did the car break before it hit the other car?  How fast did the swimming pool fill or drain with water?  With the right numbers, Calculus can help you answer those kinds of questions.

The 10 Commandments are also a type of Calculus question.  The question at hand was this:  How fast would a society decelerate into total anarchy, violence, disorder, and chaos without some degree of structure and order?  At what rate rate per second would chaos replace order?

That are approximately 613 commandments (laws) in the Hebrew Bible.  We have come to focus on ten out of six hundred.  Why?  Because (though many are repeated in some form or another in the other 613) these 10 steps create the basic outline for a functioning, civil society.  These 10 ideas provide a moral equation which results in a paradigm of basic human decency and compassion.  The 10 Commandments are not about God.  They have everything to do with how we live with each other, how we treat each other, and what or who will be our God.  We will choose the idolatry of every bright and shiny thing under the sun or will we be in relationship with the one who made us?

Food for Thought-What Does Kill Me Makes Me Stronger-A Sermon on Philippians 2:1-13

We were flying home.  It was on the plane from Dublin to JFK.  Jordan and Caroline were off to my left, in two seats, across the aisle.  Mary, Mackenzie and I were sitting in the center section.  I was in the aisle seat, Mackenzie, then Mary.  Beside Mary was a random Irish guy we didn’t know.  We had all done our own thing for most of the flight.  Considering the fact we almost missed the plane due to the extra screening I received as a potential drug dealer (they thought my fountain pen collection looked like needles in the x-ray) and the Department of Homeland Security’s subsequent follow up in a “holding area”, we were glad to have seats and made the flight.  We were already exhausted from the previous day’s train journey and the ordeal of checking in a dog and hundreds of dollars worth of extra baggage.

After I had finally relaxed enough to think straight, I started to browse through the movie and television selections on offer.  Not much caught my eye other than the 8 part HBO series called “True Detective”.  I hadn’t seen though I had read some good reviews of the acting and writing.  What the heck, I thought.  I’m going to be here for the next several hours, why not dive in?  So that’s what I did.  I watched every gritty minute back to back.  I lost all track of time.  As we were preparing to begin our approach into New York, the last episode was about to finish. I tell you now, I started to cry.  I mean really cry.  Yes, I was tired.  Yes, I was emotional at the idea of returning to the United States.  But I had never seen television like.  I had just watched an HBO series tackles some of the deepest philosophical and theological questions ever posed.  I was moved.

Soon Mackenzie and Mary noticed me crying.  What’s up with Richard?  Richard is crying!  I just pointed to the screen.  I really felt unable to describe what I had witnessed or my emotions at that moment.  All I could manage to say is, “you have to see it from the beginning, you have to watch the whole thing, you have to understand the entire story to get what’s just occurred in these last few seconds of the show?” Have you ever been in a similar situation?  Has someone walked in your moment and seen you reacting in a certain way, and just not got it?  (Mary says the same thing when I walk in on her and a Nicholas Sparks movie.) You have to see it all to get it, don’t you?

That’s how this Philippians passage makes me feel.  I’ve just seen the whole movie about the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  I’ve ridden every mile, walked the duty steps, witnessed the crucifixion, and stood at the empty tomb.  At the end, this man, a convert to the story, perhaps even the man who narrated the whole movie, comes at the end to summarize (as many films do) the meaning of what you’ve just witnessed.  To do this, he reads a poem, the form of a hymn.  The words he shares will tell you what you’ve just seen and explain the most crucial question which remains, why did an innocent man die for me?

And it is not until that moment, when I hear and absorb these words that I get it and everything starts to make sense to me.  That is the moment I start to cry.  Now is when my ability to speak vanishes.  The people around me realize something is wrong.  Richard is crying!  What’s the matter with Richard?  And the only thing which I can say is this: “You have got to see it from the beginning; you need watch the whole thing.”   Philippians 2:1-13 is that moment.  These are the words that explain the grit, dust, grime and blood and give them meaning you never knew existed.

This is the part of the movie you don’t want to miss, the part that ties it altogether.  It may reveal some uncomfortable realities we’ve wanted to ignore all along, realities that involve death, suffering, slavery, abuse, isolation, and loneliness.  Yet, in reopening those painful parts of the story, we begin to realize we can’t look away, we can’t pretend they didn’t happen, or that they ultimately don’t matter.  Unless the narrator comes back and says this is why and this is what it all meant; don’t turn away and look at these words, we may miss what we came to see in the first place.

When things get uncomfortable, when we become self-conscious of our emotions, we would much rather shut down, shut off, and walk away.  Not today; not with this story.

The narrator says this is the point of the story:  “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.”

The same Jesus was nearly flogged to death prior to his execution?  Jesus who carried and dealt with unbearable physical and spiritual agony?  He was tortured.  Jesus was executed as a common criminal.

You want that same mind to be in me?  You want me to readily embrace a life of pain and suffering for others?

Pain, suffering, and the true mind of Jesus (Jesus who divested himself of everything he could rely on to become a slave and die a gruesome human death) aren’t too high on our Christian priority list these days.

Our lives are devoted to avoiding pain.  We take pain-killers by the handful.   Everyone over a certain age lives with some degree of chronic pain.  The insurance industry and the medical profession are wealthy today because if we’re not in pain, they’ll go broke.  We don’t like to be hot; heat can cause pain, so we all have air conditioners.  Disease and sickness cause pain.  We go out of our way, with things like flu shots and hand sanitizer to eliminate the risk of disease and sickness; as such, more pain.  The irony is that we hand sanitized ourselves to death in some cases, fostering the evolution of superbugs that are immune to drugs and antibacterial treatments.

No one wants to live a life of pain.  People do it but you don’t want to live that way.  It’s only human and perfectly natural to avoid pain.  That’s a concept we learn pretty soon in childhood.

And haven’t we been taught in the church (and by the church) that Jesus came here to meet our needs, help us out, and generally make it possible for us to steer clear from pain? Isn’t that something we’ve come to believe is true?  Didn’t Jesus come to make people feel better?

Though this narrator from our film, let’s call him Paul, seems to have a different idea. He says we should have the same mind, outlook, life plan as Jesus, who, “humbled himself and become obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”  He appears to be saying we should run headlong into the pain and not just any old pain, but a pain like crucifixion.  And that should be ok with us.

Why does Paul do this? Think about this way.  Paul’s not saying anything that Jesus himself hasn’t said before.  “Deny yourself, take up your cross and follow me.”

Paul is just the echo of what Jesus has already said.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer summed it up way; Jesus bids each of us to “come and die.”

That’s a surefire way to get people into church, isn’t it?  Come and die.  It’s Biblical.  It’s exactly what Jesus and Paul said.  But it’s not reflective of what the church as a whole says today.

Imagine Joel Osteen or any of a number of other popular purveyors of Christianity who, instead of saying, “Come and Get Your Best Life Now”, said come and die.  How soon would the stadiums go empty or the satellites go dark?  Overnight.

A few years ago, a study by the National Study of Youth and Religion at UNC-CH, interviewed more than 3000 American adolescents. They found that the faith of most adolescents in mainline Christian denomination churches could best be described as “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.”  It is summed up with beliefs like these: God is watching over us from a distance, we should be good, and the most important thing is for me to feel good.”

There are probably many adults who feel the same way.  They believe in the Bette Midler, “from a distance” God and faith is about affirming their self-esteem.  Moralistic Therapeutic Deism or MTD; there are lots of people infected with MTD.  A cure for that would be something the church ought to consider creating a race for.

Here’s where you might ask, “Didn’t Jesus make people feel better?”  And I would say yes.  He spent most of his days making people feel better by alleviating pain and suffering.  From the opening chapters of Mark’s gospel, Jesus is healing people almost 24 hours a day in the town of Capernaum.  Then he moves on to a new village and does the same thing again.  Healing lepers, the blind, the handicapped, and exorcising the demon possessed that was all he did for most of three years.

So what’s with the contradictions?  Are we in the pain alleviation business or are we to embrace pain and suffering?  What’s this movie really all about?

Look again at verse seven and eight.  “But emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death-even death on a cross.”

Born in human likeness, found in human form, and humbled himself-do you see what’s behind all those words?  It’s the idea that Jesus came to share our lives, our joys, and our pains WITH us.  He came to be one of us.  Emmanuel, God with us.  Paul is saying that the point of the story, what sums it all up in the end, is this:  Jesus stepped into the world to share our pain with us.  In turn, we leave this theatre, this summation, by going out into the world to share in the pain of others.  We step into their lives alongside them, when they are dying, lonely, lost, hurt, oppressed, beaten, and tortured because Jesus did this for us; he showed us how it’s done.  He is our role model.

The Good News, the Gospel, is an invitation to enter into the pain and suffering of others.  Not to look away, avoid, or ignore what may be painful to consider or seem to run contrary to the conventional therapeutic deism we’ve been led to believe is Christianity.  It’s about engaging with the world, in the midst of that suffering and pain, so the people in pain can have a better, happier life.

Paul’s message is that we all have an opportunity to confess Christ with our lives.  We can make that confession most clearly when we’ve emptied ourselves of those things that prevent us from sharing in the pain and struggles of others.

So if people ask you, why are you crying at the end of this movie, just say this:

If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, 2make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. 3Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. 4Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. 5Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, 6who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, 7but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, 8he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross.9Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, 10so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

Say, “He did that for me so I can do it for others.  That’s why he came in the first place.”

Then tell them story from the beginning.

 

Food for Thought-The One About the Prostitutes and the Tax Collectors: Initial Thoughts on Matthew 21:23-32

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The One about the Tax Collectors and the Prostitute

That sounds like a great joke, doesn’t it? “A tax collector, a Pharisee, and a prostitute walk into bar, the Pharisee says I’ll take two shots of righteous indignation please.” To which the tax collector replies, “Not so fast buddy, I’ve already asked for her first.”

So what makes Matthew 21:23-32 so interesting? Because it’s a smack down! Jesus pulls no punches and verbally “opens up a can of whoop butt” on this group of Pharisees and scribes who are trying to catch him their theological trap. Do you know how bad it is to compare the top religious people to whores and people who were regarded as traitors to the Jewish race? Pretty bad, my friend. Pretty bad.

Initial thoughts…why are the prostitutes and the tax collectors more likely to get “it” and come into the kingdom of heaven than these uptight, holier than thou, religious jerks?

1. They have the least distance to fall. They are the lowest of the low in their society. What do they have to lose by listening to the Good News? In fact, they have everything to gain.

2. They carry less religious and theological baggage than the good God-fearing people of the religious establishment. They are not encumbered by misguided preconceptions and faulty interpretations of scripture. As people who are judged constantly, they are willing to look at the world beyond the rigid paradigm of the law. This is the same thing Jesus does.

3. They are willing to work for something. To make a living as a tax collector or a prostitute, you have to work hard. Tax collectors and prostitutes are open to using their work ethic for something that isn’t soul destroying. In that sense, because all three of these aspects work together, it becomes much easier for them to change their lives for the better. Inhibitions about changing every part of their life don’t bother them the same way it would the religious elite.

Here’s the big question.  Would the tax collectors and prostitutes be welcome in our church today?  Today’s tax collectors, sex workers, and other despised people who live on society’s margins, would they find an open home, as modeled and explained by Jesus?  Could we, if needed, make Jesus’ point to our own people?

Sad news is, probably not.

Food for Thought-Jesus Sounds Like a 1st Century Palestinian Socialist-A Sermon on Matthew 20:1-16

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If Jesus is known for doing one thing in his teaching and parables it this: turning your expectations on their head and shattering your illusions about how you think God works and responds to the world. In parable after parable, encounter after encounter, this is what Jesus does. One of the most dramatic examples can be found in the parable we read this morning.

I think one of the best ways to understand what Jesus is saying is to put it into our context today. How can we try and hear this story as if we’ve never heard it before and really don’t know much about this Jesus guy who has shared it? If we want to hear his story with fresh ears and see with new eyes, we need to tell this story in such way that it might take us by surprise in the same way it did with Jesus’ first hearers. It’s hard to do this with some of Jesus’ parable; the clear points of connection just aren’t there. Not so with this one. What Jesus is talking about today, the people he’s describing, are all part of our world. The people, practices, and reactions are really unchanged from when Jesus first told this story.

So what’s one way we might encounter this story anew; a story of migrant day laborers, wage disputes, economic inequality, and perceived injustice?

Forget, if you can, this is part of the Bible and the Son of God himself is relating this story.
Imagine you’re driving down the road, listening to your favorite whine and gripe talk station, when this guy calls up; one of the workers who feels he’s been slighted and cheated because he worked all day and got the same money as the people who showed up at the end of the day. It’s one of the workers, hired first, telling the story. Not Jesus. You’re hearing the exact same things Jesus said but you don’t know anything at all about Matthew 20:1-16. You hear this cold, from the first worker’s perspective. How would you feel? Would you find yourself automatically agreeing with the aggrieved worker? I think most people would. Today, the first worker would probably add something to the story. Those who came late and were paid the same were probably immigrants. This would have infuriated the first worker even more. Stereotypes would be fed, anger fueled, “see we’re going to hell in a hand basket” would be said, Congress and the President would be blamed, and the vicious cycle of “it’s not fair” would begin all over again.

How would you feel if that were you? Would you agree with the supposedly slighted workers? Is this, “what’s wrong with America/the world today”; people wanting to receive benefits or pay when they don’t do what we perceive to be the work first?

Then you remember; this is not some call on a radio talk show. This is Jesus talking. If I’m getting frustrated at the outcome of this story, how this guy was treated, and how this boss paid everyone the same amount of money, I’m getting frustrated and angry toward the Son of God, Jesus Christ himself.

Let me tell you, if you’re driving and have such a realization, and pull over.

Day laborers have been part of the economic system for centuries. People who wait on street corners and dusty roads for a chance to work for enough to eek by for another day, have been some of the most exploited human beings in the history of western civilization. The lack any worker protections, they can’t form unions, they can be paid next to nothing, and they work in horrible conditions. There are always more day laborers than available work. So even on a good day, many are left behind. When people suggest (as you see in Jesus’ parable) in our own day that we change some of those conditions in which day laborers work (protection, equal pay); the people at the top and the people who get paid, get very angry. Some will say, “Isn’t a job enough?” Some money is better than no money, right?

Here are the facts: Jesus’ understanding of justice and fairness is nothing like ours. If they were, none of us would be here today. Jesus’ ideas about how to pay and treat people who are barely hanging on to the end of the rotten socio-economic ladder of mass-agricultural capitalism are what many in our day would call un-American. How would Jesus be treated by Bill O’Reilly if he told this parable on “The Factor”? He would be called a socialist. He would be called weak on immigration for encouraging the use of illegal alien migrant day laborers. He would be vilified. People might begin to talk about the equivalent of 21st century crucifixion. Tweets and messages would flood in. “Good Going Bill, you showed that long haired Middle Eastern socialist a thing or two about how we do it in America!”

What Jesus says and teaches, particularly here, stands in stark contrast to what many in our country have been taught to believe. The terms we were taught, “God-fearing, hard-working American” and the idea of a “Protestant work ethic”, don’t look to Godly when measured against Jesus’ management practices in this passage.

Jesus resists living by the status quo, interpreting scripture by the status quo, and so should we. He is turning the world (of those who are listening) upside down as well as ours. In this parable, we have more in common with his hearers and the first workers than we do Jesus. If something about what Jesus has just said doesn’t feel right to you, then you know he’s talking to you. You are now upside down.

One of the big problems is when we read this parable is we see ourselves as the first hour workers. That’s who we associate ourselves with and that’s what stokes our anger. When we hear it in our context (if you pull Jesus out and listen to the story), we agree with that guy. The truth is, we are not first hour workers. Each one of us, you and me, are all 11th hour workers. We have all arrived at the end of the day. It is not until the last possible minute we show up. We have all been the undeserved recipients of God’s undeserved generosity and grace. It’s been that way all our lives. But somehow, we started getting frustrated when God became generous and loving to other people. It made us mad to see God do for others what he’d done for us. Where did we get the idea that we could tell God how to be God? How did we ever get fooled into thinking we were first and God owed us more than the many blessings we’d already received?

We stopped listening to Jesus, that how. We forgot who we were listening to and who was telling us the story. We stopped letting Jesus’ stories shape our lives and values and allowed the media, popular culture, technology, and the news mold our characters instead. In the words of Dr. Phil, “How’s that working out for you?”

So how do we begin to come to terms that everyone is equal in the eyes of God? That’s what this parable is really about. It’s not about the money. It’s that the landowner gave the same money. People were treated equally and fairly by God’s standard and not by our “human” or “worldly” standards. Where do we conveniently destroy our indignation at Jesus’ words and the supposed unfairness of the landowner’s actions? That like so much else; can be left at the foot of the cross.
There was a book written many years ago by a man named, J.B. Phillips. It was entitled, “Your God is Too Small.” Maybe this parable is asking us to write a new book, “Our God is Too Nice.” God is too nice, nicer than we can ever imagine. God is nicer to us than we deserve. We have no right to be angry when he’s nice to other people; people who are different from us, who show up after we do, and those who generally frustrate the hell out of us. Because we’re all different, we’re all late comers to the party, and we’re all just waiting for someone to call us and offer us a chance to serve.

-Richard Bryant

Food for Thought-Hunger Games in the Wilderness-a Sermon on Exodus 16:2-15

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I really do feel for Moses. I talked a couple of weeks ago at how difficult it must have been for him to initially relate the story of the burning bush to his family and fellow shepherds. Can you imagine explaining to a group of disbelieving Midianite relatives or shepherds? Shepherds you don’t really fit in with in the first place. They are professional shepherds since they could walk, you are an over educated culturally confused Egyptian claiming to be Jewish who’d never seen a sheep until you arrived in Midian fleeing murder charges. One day you tell them God spoke to you through a burning bush (which didn’t burn) and now you’re the one designated to lead the mission to free the Israelites from Pharaoh? People haven’t changed that much over the past three or four thousand years. If it sounds strange to us, it’s probably going to sound crazy to them as well.

Now all of that has been vindicated. He was the guy God called. Despite his meekness of speech and initial reluctance, the Exodus happened. God made massive demonstrations of his power to convince Pharaoh to let his people go. The Nile turned to blood, there plagues of frogs and locusts, and eventually the angel of death passed over and killed every first born Egyptian. To follow this up, God caused an immense natural body of water to divide itself, making it possible for the Israelites to flee an approaching Egyptian army. The army was subsequently destroyed when the divided water came back together, crushing and drowning the Egyptian army. You have to admit it, this is pretty amazing stuff. If you’re one of the Israelites on this initial stage of the journey to the Promised Land, you’ve seen God do things than no one else had ever seen or would ever see again. There should be no doubt in your mind about God’s seriousness of purpose or God’s ability to deliver and deliver big on God’s promises. Wouldn’t you agree?

Yes. I would. And this is why I feel for Moses, as a leader and simply as a human being. You would think that by this time his resume and God’s actions would speak for themselves. But that’s not the case. What the Israelites have seen and witnessed isn’t enough. Yesterday, God was killing Egyptian children and the Pharaoh was drinking blood from the polluted Nile. It seems, that no matter how dramatic and meaningful yesterday was they’ve forgotten it. Call it what you will, they’ve stopped connecting the dots, they are no longer thinking straight, they’ve simply ignored the realities of the past and can’t see anything beyond right now. That stinks, especially for Moses.

They might have been on the road for 60-90 days. At some point, relatively soon after they left Egypt, scripture tells us, “the whole congregation”, which means basically everybody started to complain against Moses and Aaron. Here’s the kicker. The complaints are not simple concerns. One might expect, “we’re hot, we’re tired, there’s never enough water.” Those are the kind of complaints one might and would even rightly expect. We’re dealing with human beings in hot, dry, and arid land. People will complain.

But that’s not what they said. Listen again to their words. “If we had only died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.”

If you God, is what they are saying, had only killed us in Egypt, we would be better off, because there was bread in Egypt. Now Moses, you are trying to kills us with some kind of starvation death march. This is why I feel for Moses. He can’t win. Can you just imagine his level of frustration? He risked his life by going up in front of Pharaoh, he’s helped facilitate these massive displays of God’s power, with his brother he has helped organize every aspect of their journey and now they accuse him of trying to kill them with starvation? They have the nerve to publicly say it was better in Egypt. So not only have they forgotten what God has done for them they’ve completely idealized and romanticized what being a slave was about.

It would be like someone managing to escape from Auschwitz, Dachau, or Bergen-Belsen any concentration camp you can name and when they were far enough way but have to struggle between German and allied lines saying something like this to the person risked their life to free them, “Those Germans and SS guards sure were nice guys. Why have you brought me out here to the cold forests of Poland only to die of hunger and starvation? Why didn’t you kill me at the camp? At least they gave us rotten bread to eat on the way to the gas chamber. The gas chamber would be better than this.”

Do you see how ridiculous they are being? How insanely stupid they sound? How they have lost all sense of proportion and context?

This complaint to Moses reveals two important facts. First, they have trust issues with Moses. Secondly, they don’t trust God. Ultimately, it is really just about God. Because if they don’t trust Moses, that’s just the visible sign that they don’t trust God. And as Billy Joel said, it’s a matter of trust.

They think they are out there to play the Hunger Games. That’s not the case. Through Moses, God explains how he is going to provide for them on a daily basis. It involves giving them bread on a daily basis. I seem to remember us saying something earlier about, “give us this day or daily bread.” Well lo and behold this is where Jesus took it from.

God is going to provide bread from heaven each and every day they are on the road. There will only be enough for that given day. On the day before the Sabbath, so they can rest on the Sabbath, God will provide and extra portion, so they are getting two days worth on that day. There will be enough for everyone. No one will get more than they need but everyone will get exactly what they need. This is crucial to God’s plan: what they are getting will only last for one day. Anything leftover will rot away that night. So no one is allowed to stockpile or hoard food. They will get more on the following day.

Why is God doing it this way? Why is God using this daily bread option? Because they are going to have to trust him that something will be there tomorrow. The only way this is going to work is if they trust God. We only have enough food for today. This bread will only feed us today. We have no leftovers, supplies, or any for tomorrow. The only way we are going to survive is to trust that God will do tomorrow (provide for us) the same way he did today. We have to trust God (and his people on the ground, Aaron and Moses).

How many times in our own life have we reenacted this Israelite drama? You may not have seen a plague of frogs or Silver Lake split so you can walk across it but you have seen God at work in your life. God has done amazing things; sometimes spectacular and at other times exquisitely simple. Regardless of how grand or how small, God has moved in your life. How easy is it for us to forget how far God has brought us and what God has done in our lives? It is as easy as it was for the Israelites.

How easy is it for us to offer effusive praise and love to God on one day then doubt God’s love or presence in our lives the next? It is as easy as the last breath you took. So what do we do? How do we avoid playing the mental Hunger Games like a group of wandering Israelite pilgrims?

The first thing we do is look around. We remind ourselves of what God has done in our lives. Are you alive this morning? I hope so. There are no zombies in God’s house. Do you have food on your table? I doubt any of us are going hungry. Do you have family and friends who love you? Yes, because many of them are sitting right here beside you. I could go on. But I am here to tell you this morning that those things are evidence of God’s action, presence, and blessing in your life. You life is your Red Sea, you food is your manna from heaven. You family and your life is evidence that God has spared you from the Pharaoh’s of this world.

Now if all of that mercy, goodness, and grace surrounds you, let me ask you this: Did God bring you that far to let you down tomorrow? Did God walk with you up to this point to forget about you? We didn’t come this far to forget. We did make this journey to stop here. We didn’t overcome all of those in our lives to give up now. Fear and doubt may have knocked at your door. Will trust answer?

In the words of the old African American spiritual, “I Don’t Feel Noways Tired”:
I don’t feel noways tired
I’ve come to o far from where I started from
Nobody told me the road would be easy
I don’t believe he brought me this far to leave me.

We know the road’s not easy. Yet, he didn’t bring you this far to leave you.

The second thing both we and the Israelites need to do is understand the difference between our “shoulds” and our “musts”. We all know what we should do. But can we do what we must do? We know we should trust God. We see that God has a track record. We are living proof of God’s unbroken winning streak in keeping us alive. And we must not forget it. That is why we must remind ourselves by looking around at our world and our lives. That is why we must remind ourselves by coming to church and re-telling the stories of God’s goodness and saving works. This is why we sing the old hymns that talk about what God has done because we must remind ourselves for a coming tomorrow when we are prone to forget.

Food for Thought-Richard’s Daily Prayer-September 17th, 2014

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The morning prayers I write each day are posted on my church community’s Facebook page.

https://www.facebook.com/pages/Ocracoke-United-Methodist-Church/165833216776269

Please feel free to like us and follow along.  Audio versions of my preached sermon can be found there as well.

I thought I would share today’s prayer here as well:

Gracious God

You call us to pray in the darkened closets and distant corners of our lives. Far from the eyes of the maddening crowd, we speak with you about those emotions, events, people, and ideas which dominate our days. Yet, before the words form in our minds and the ideas become words, you are meeting our most pressing needs. Needs we know, needs we have yet to become aware of, and comforting those who weigh on our souls. As we remember those in our life today in need of your presence, we give thanks to you for remembering us. We praise you for not forgetting that place, that seat, that spot in your kingdom where we are made welcome.

As we move from the hidden sanctity of prayer, be with us as we step onto the street corners of reality. May our prayers be more than words. May they become Spirit bathed actions made real by the love they embody and represent.

Amen

Food for Thought-It’s Not Fair!-Initial Thoughts on Matthew 20:1-16

The way I want to approach this parable is by  putting it into our context; our day and time.  In order to do this, imagine you didn’t know Jesus was telling this parable.  Forget, if you can, this is part of the Bible and the Son of God himself is relating this story.

Now imagine you’re driving down the road, listening to your favorite whine and gripe talk station, when this guy calls up; one of the workers who feels he’s been slighted and cheated because he worked all day and got the same money as the people who showed up at the end of the day.  It’s one of the workers, hired first, telling the story.  Not Jesus.  You’re hearing the exact same things Jesus said but you don’t know anything at all about Matthew 20:1-16.  You hear this cold, from the first worker’s perspective.  How would you feel?  Would you find yourself automatically agreeing with the aggrieved worker?  I think most people would.  Today, the first worker would probably add something to the story.  Those who came late and were paid the same were probably immigrants.  This would have infuriated the first worker even more.  Stereotypes would be fed, anger fueled, “see we’re going to hell in a hand basket” would be said, Congress and the President would be blamed, and the vicious cycle of “it’s not fair” would begin all over again.

Then you remember, this is not some call on a radio talk show.  This is Jesus talking.  You’d realize your anger is misplaced.  Why is Jesus taking the side of the late comers?  Why is he on the side of paying everyone the same?  Is Jesus some anti-American socialist?

Jesus is not an American.   He believes in treating people equally.  Define that how you will.

The kingdom of God is not about fairness.  It’s about equality before God.  If it were about fairness, none of us would have a shot at any kind of future.

Judge your reaction.  How out of step would your reactions be to Jesus’ priorities?

How big is the gap you need to fill?

Food for Thought-It’s Hard to Be a Bigot When You’re Realize Jesus Loves Us All Equally-A Sermon on Romans 14:1-12

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I have a confession to make.  I am pathologically incapable of ordering food in a restaurant without first knowing and discussing what everyone else is planning to eat.  My first question is typically, “So what are you having?”  It is, as if, I can’t make my decision until I know what other choices are being made.  There’s something in my head that tells me, “We must have culinary variety.”  So if I’m leaning toward steak and I know you’re also thinking about steak, well then, I’ll have to change my mind.  Maybe I’ll get the fish or chicken.  In the food utopia I’ve created in my mind, two people can’t order the exact same thing.  What if I want to try what you’ve ordered?  Even though we’re not in a Chinese restaurant (a whole other ball of wax) and won’t be served communal dishes, I want to leave open the possibility of sharing. Then there’s that one person who orders something, weird, askew, and maybe a bit gross.  This throws the whole ordering process off.  Because then, everyone at the table has to comment on what an informed culinary selection has just been made or how gross “fondue squid” actually sounds.

No longer are people simply ordering what they want.  It’s now about approval, making a decision from the choices of others, and then judging what sounds strange of different to you.   If you’ve ever gone out to eat and had this experience, you’ve had a snapshot of what life looked like in first century Christianity.  People were big into food and they attached huge religious significance to what and how they ate.  Eating was a life or death issue and I don’t mean just for the cow, sheep, or pig on your plate.  And like any issue in the church, whether then or now, it was never all about eating.  There were much more important theological and religious concerns just below the surface.

Paul is writing a letter to the Romans.  The Romans are “the” Christian community to be a part of.  They represent the intellectual vanguard of the growing Christian movement.  In the capital of the most powerful empire the world had ever known, they represent the hope of the church in more ways than one.  If we were to enter the door of First Church, Rome, we would find Latin speaking Roman converts.  There are Jews who have heard Jesus’ message and believed.  You will find immigrants from all corners of the empire who have made it to Rome and now identify themselves as Christian.  They are multi-lingual, multi-ethnic, and some bring with them other Christian experiences.  Some have been to Jerusalem, Alexandria, or Damascus.  Others knew nothing of the Christ until they entered the fellowship.  And yet, they are all here, under this single roof, and claim Jesus as their Lord and Savior.

Their connection to the wider world and other Christian communities has been largely fostered by Paul.  Though Paul has never visited this church, he knows their mindset, he understands them, and is trying to support them as they become the disciples they have been called to be.  He anticipates making a journey to Rome and this letter is a word of encouragement written for their whole community.  When he gets there, he wants to meet them at their best.

Our letter and this snapshot from the 14th chapter, is an insight into the life of this early church and how Paul was attempting to guide them beyond a superficial faith into something more substantial.

Paul is giving the Romans, the church that really believed they had something going on by virtue of their geography, an extended lesson in how be welcoming, friendly, and hospitable.  He’s teaching them how to be better people, better Christians, and how to have a better church.

Paul’s first rule: Christians welcome everybody; especially those who are weak in their faith.  This is gesture of love and done in love.  We don’t welcome people to church, especially those Paul refers to as “weak in faith” (i.e. people who are in different places in how they understand what it means to be faithful) because we want to argue with them.  Paul wants the early Christians in Rome to see that differences of belief are something to be embraced and welcomed.   Clearly, he doesn’t want people be threatened by people who say or do things differently.

Here’s how he puts it (and he’s using a dietary example to make his point-which tells us that there were probably people in the new church who wanted to keep Kosher or follow Jewish dietary restrictions-a very important discussion-and those who did not.  There were people who believed that in order to follow Jesus one still had to follow certain Jewish practices.  Others did not share this belief.):  “Some believe in eating anything, while the weak eat only vegetables.”   So some were kosher and some were vegetarian.  He goes on in verse 3, “Those who eat must despise those who abstain and those who abstain must not pass judgment on those who eat, for God has welcomed them.”  In other words, kosher people can be mean and vegetarians can’t be snobby-this is God’s party.  God gets to decide who is let in, not us.  And apparently, God’s got much bigger things to worry about than what people are eating.

Remember, “food” or “who ate what” was just the issue they used to mask the true nature of what they were upset about.  They might look like racists or bigots if they said, “we don’t like people because those jokers from Asia Minor because they speak a different language and they have darker skin.”  Instead, they said, “We’ll just get them on the food thing.”   So when the issue came up they said, “It’s not because you’re new and different, you just don’t eat right.”  Though everyone knew what they really meant.

So, if we were going to put this into today’s language, what would it look like?  Would we still phrase this as a discussion about food?  Is that the example Paul might use today?

He might say something like this.  “Some were straight, some were gay, some were republicans, and some were democrats, some were white, and some were black but in church and in life, those who are straight must not pass judgment on those who are gay, and those who are gay must not pass judgment on those who are straight, democrats must not pass judgment on republicans, republicans upon democrats, white upon black, and black upon white.”

As important and meaningful as those issues are to us today, people were living and dying by the same concerns Paul highlighted in his letter.

The same concerns that plagued the Roman church are also in our churches today, it’s just that the terminology has changed.   The issues of judgment, grace, and getting along with one another have not changed, they remain the same.

Paul goes on to say, and here’s where it gets really good, that in our own ways, our differences bring honor to God.  God honors our differences and our differences honor God.  That’s the second big point he’s making. 

He says some people have a more positive outlook on life, “Some judge one day to be better than another, while others judge all days to be alike.”  In other words, we all have different perspectives.  That’s who God made us.

If you honor the Sabbath or a particular day over another, you’re doing that in honor of the Lord, Paul says.  “Also, he adds, “those who eat, eat in honor of the Lord, since they give thanks to God; while those who abstain (the vegetarians), abstain in honor of the Lord and give thanks to God.”

Do you see what he’s saying?  If you’re acknowledging God as the root, saying thanks, whatever you do and how you do it honors God.  Are you genuine in how you live and give thanks to God?  Paul indicates that if your heart is in the right place, you’re honoring God?  That’s his big third point, “Who are we to judge other people?”  He asks this quite bluntly:  “Why do you pass judgment on your brother or sister?  Or you, why do you despise your brother or sisters?”

Because, “we will all stand”, he says in verse 10.  Yes, it’s a verse about judgment but God’s judgment is based on our equality with each other.  People read that verse and go straight to that word judgment. Judgment is not our business, it is God’s business. God sees and embraces our differences while also saying, “We’re all equal.”

Our lives are about offering God praise.  Paul closes by telling us, “It’s hard to praise God on bended knee and with your words (your tongue) when you’re distracted by your definition of the sins of others and you’re using your tongue (your words) to judge people.

How about us?  Are we able to focus on worship, service, praise, and gratitude to the level Paul was encouraging the first church in Rome?   Are we able to say when something is not about the eating or whatever people want to call the issue of the day?  That being a person of faith is about not judging, forgiving, and living in community.  You can fight about anything.  The question is, are you willing to not judge the people you are fighting and remember that God died for all of us equally, no matter what issues we have deemed to be life and death or sink or swim?

So how do you praise God?  How does one worship God if your attentions are focused elsewhere?  It’s hard to worship and praise God if you’re too busy doing God’s job for God.  You can’t praise God and judge the people around you.  The two actions are mutually exclusive.  One cancels the other out.  This is what I want you to remember and hold on to today.