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.