Monday, October 24, 2011


Proper 25-A; October 23, 2011
Deuteronomy 34:1-12; Psalm 90
1 Thessalonians 2:1-8; Matthew 22:34-46

We baby boomers – born between 1946 and 1964 – are used to seeing ourselves at the center of the universe – well, of the marketing universe that caters to our desires. We are the great bulge, moving from babyhood to elementary school to fast times at Ridgemont High. We went to college in a tie-dyed, denim-clad group, entered the workforce in our Oxford button-downs at the same time – and are now, in our relaxed khakis and comfy sweaters, entering our 60s. We read a passage like this one, from Deuteronomy, with new eyes – eyes perhaps not as clear as those of Moses:

Moses was one hundred twenty years old when he died; his sight was unimpaired and his vigor was not abated.

That sounds good to me. I’m not even half-way there!

Moses is astounding, not only for his long-lived clarity of vision, but for his single-mindedness. Once he took on God’s plan to move the people of Israel out of Egypt and to the Promised Land, that was all he did. His eyes were on the prize, and he kept going, despite all the setbacks that whining people and wilderness roads put in his path.

Commendable as that is, the culture we live in seems to pull us in another direction – or rather, far too many directions at once. Have you seen that commercial about the man who has forgotten that it’s his wedding anniversary? His wife calls up, while he is focused on some project at his desk, and all of a sudden, through the magic of this particular cell phone, he can simultaneously reassure his wife that he has NOT forgotten their date, make a reservation at their favorite restaurant and have flowers delivered at their home, all at the same time. But we don’t see this couple at dinner. Is the husband frantically finishing his work project from the restaurant table, texting while his wife is looking at the menu, e-mailing a document while she goes to the ladies room, pretending to calculate the tip while he is really tweaking a spreadsheet?

I’m enough of a baby boomer to be shocked! shocked! that college students aren’t necessarily taking notes on their laptops connected to the internet in their lecture halls – but also to agree that it is kind of handy just to send that one more text from my phone while I am sitting at a red light on Genesee Street. Sitting in the driver’s seat, of course.

Multi-tasking and its discontents are in the air we breathe.

Today’s gospel is for us:

When the Pharisees heard that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. "Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?"

That question cuts through all the noise, doesn’t it? In the face of all that is around us, Teacher, all the confusion and crashing that affects even us little people here, what does God want us to do?

The Gospels present us with the picture of a changing world. The old understanding of faith in God – follow all the many laws, listen to the authorities like scribes and Pharisees – the ones who symbolically sat in Moses’ seat – is being challenged by this one particular teacher, this Jesus, who seems to embody in his person all the hope and good news and promise of God, the God who has been made known through the law and the prophets. Whom do we follow? We can hear the concern in the voices of the people: if we follow Jesus, do we have to abandon everything we have known about God up to now?

From the midst of all these questions and confusions and options and interpretations, Jesus breaks through with remarkable simplicity:

"`You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.' This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: `You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets."

What Jesus is saying is, Keep your faith where it has always been: with God. As he spars with those religious leaders trying to entrap him into making some big mistake, he makes it clear that his faith is with God, and with the essentials that God has always, always, always been trying to get across to us. This is the big thing that everything hangs from. This is the start, the first, the banner headline screaming across the top of the newspaper: Love God. Love your neighbor as yourself. Everything starts with this. Anything else is distraction, multi-tasking with no result, mere interruptions that take us away from giving ourselves fully to the God who loves us and wants us to love back, and wants us to love all these other people whom God loves, too. In this ever-widening circle of care and concern lies our treasure, our heart, our true home.
Yesterday, when we were raking the yard and cleaning up the building, we found this: a robin’s nest, a work that took extraordinary focus, determination and clarity of purpose. It is an astounding creation, hard as concrete yet light as a feather. The bird knows just what nest works for those eggs and those babies. All the grass and twigs and paper and I don’t even know what in the world comes down to just this one, perfect nest.

Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. You, too, can learn the art of single-tasking.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Render unto ...

Proper 24-A; 10/16/2011
Exodus 33:12-23; Psalm 99
1 Thessalonians 1:1-10; Matthew 22:15-22

The newspaper headlines Friday morning were scooped, as is often the case, by the radio and internet. It turned out that the Occupy Wall Street protesters were not after all to be evicted from their camp in a park in lower Manhattan. Mayor Bloomberg announced that a deal had been struck; the protesters and the owner of the park would negotiate how to keep the park clean. The newspaper pictures showed earnest, long-haired, tattooed-types pushing brooms on sidewalks and heaving huge plastic bags of demonstration detritus. For the time being, Caesar, or at least Mayor Bloomberg, had been rendered unto. In the words of “the street,” a deal had been done, and the Mayor got what he wanted, apparently a promise of a cleaner park, a mollified property owner, and orderly protesters.

We Americans -- founded on biblical principles since the Puritans came to a reformed England in North America to found a city on a hill, a beacon of righteousness for all the world to see – we Americans have a long history of protesting economic arrangements, from taxes to big banks, that strike us as unfair. The tea in Boston Harbor was neither the beginning nor the end. Andrew Jackson became president on his opposition to the central banks. Nineteenth-century populists nearly elected another president, William Jennings Bryan, who was opposed to putting the currency on the gold standard. Explicitly Christian, Bryan’s famous “cross of gold” speech equated what the banking interests were doing to ordinary Americans with the crucifixion of Jesus.

Nothing is certain but death and taxes, goes the old saying. Just as certain, it seems, is the human propensity to acquire, and the matching propensity for others to rail against the injustice and unfairness of systems which give too much to some, and too little to others. And on top of it all, it seems, Caesar always looms.
People in 1st century Palestine paid a lot of taxes. Jews had to pay the Temple tax – 21 percent! Everyone had to pay customs taxes on what goods they traded. If you were a farmer (and 90 percent of the population were farmers), two-thirds of what you earned went to the Roman and Jewish elite, through a combination of how much you were taxed and who owned the land you farmed. In those days, they really ensured that the rich got rich and the poor got poorer.[i]

But it was the coin with the face of Caesar that was deeply offensive to all Jews, who lived by God’s commandment not to make graven images. This coin with the face of Caesar had to be used to pay the tribute tax to the Roman Empire. If you used this coin with the graven image to pay the tribute tax, you were breaking one of the Commandments handed down by God to Moses. If you did not use this coin – if you did not pay the tax – the Romans would lock you up for sedition, and that is much worse than being audited by the IRS.

Just about everyone who reads this passage from Matthew acknowledges that Jesus knows that his opponents are trying to trick him with this question, and so he cleverly avoids the trap. He dismisses the problem with the coin as not a theological one at all: this coin obviously belongs to Caesar, so give it back to him. So what? It’s only money.

Then he lays out the theological problem: Give to God what belongs to God.

In our lives, what does belong to our equivalent to Caesar? In our lives, what does belong to God?

Most of us, most of the time, pay taxes. “Caesar” has to know how much money we have, or how much we spend, in order to tax us, and here in the United States, many people spend a lot of money, both legally and under the table, to avoid paying taxes. A lot of people aren’t even “rendering unto Caesar” but shaving a little (or a lot) off the top before Caesar knows what’s happening.

So what do we do with that money that is NOT rendered unto Caesar? With that money that, in the United States at least, does not go into fixing the roads on which we all drive, or the emergency services we all hope will be there when we need them, or the schools where we learned to read and write? How many people seem to exercise a “preferential option for middle class living over living the gospel?”[ii] If we’re not giving to Caesar what is Caesar’s, are we giving to God what is God’s?

Think about it: What is God’s? What do we owe to God?

In this gospel passage, Jesus raises the question without answering it. But the way Matthew has arranged these latter chapters of his gospel, we are hit with parable after parable that tell us what Jesus has in mind.
Think about the context: in Chapter 21, Jesus enters Jerusalem – the story we read on Palm Sunday. Chapter 26 is the Last Supper. In between, we read parables, speeches, teaching moments, difficult conversations about the world – often illustrated in the stark economic reality of his day – and about how God’s followers should live in place that has clearly become unjust.

Read over these chapters some time. It is easy to see how they are overlooked, misinterpreted. It is easy to see how the church over the centuries has been domesticated, concerned with small things, with being nice, with being proper, with worrying about sexual morality, who’s in and who’s out. It is much easier to put the stuff we “render unto God” into our buildings or staff or heating bills.

But think about it: if this building and this staff and these heating bills are what we render unto God, what are we doing with them, especially when we look at all that we have in light of the urgency Jesus speaks in these last chapters of Matthew?

Yes, it is stewardship time. What we put in the plate is important, but it is only the beginning. If we are only paying for our maintenance, then yes, we are rendering to Caesar what is Caesar’s. But if we realize that what we are paying for – this building, this place, this community, this table – is a launching pad for what Jesus wants us to do in this unjust, unhealthy and broken world, where people are lonely and isolated and poor and hungry and where what we can do can make a world of difference, then yes, indeed, everything we give, we render unto God.

[i]  From Marcus Borg, “What belongs to God?”
[ii]  From the Rev. Patrick Brennan, “30 Good Minutes,”

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Jesus' business model

Proper 22-A    Oct. 2, 2011
Exodus 20:1-4,7-9,12-20; Psalm 19
Philippians 3:4-14; Matthew 21:33-46

What if the Federal Reserve, or the U.S. Treasury, or the International Monetary Fund, ran by God’s rules? God cares a lot about the economy, if the Gospels are any measure of God’s interests and activities. So think about it: in this perplexing and violent parable – sometimes titled “the wicked husbandman” – Jesus is making the case that God cares about what we do with what we have been given. “The kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom.”

What if God said that to the Federal Reserve? To the U.S. Treasury? To the lenders of sub-prime mortgages? To the bankers who have just decided to charge us for using the debit cards they told us to use? To those who spread the risk around and keep the profits to themselves?

“God’s economy” means the way God organizes God’s household, and so what are the rules for living in God’s household? This text reminds us that the penalty is pretty stiff for breaking them – “a miserable death” – so let’s look a little closer at what we have here. If God’s household is this vineyard, then one of the crisis points in the year is the time of harvest. The crop has ripened at once, and there is not a moment to lose to get in all in. Such a crisis is fraught with opportunity and peril. “The harvest is plentiful,” Matthew has Jesus say elsewhere, “but the laborers are few.”

The vineyard, in Biblical imagery, represents sacred land, God’s land, the symbolic place where the people live in obedience to God, to the Torah, the comprehensive way of life that marks what it is to be a Jew. The Torah, or the Law, begins with those 10 Commandments God gave to Moses, and you could say that for a faithful Jew – a faithful Jew like Jesus, or his disciple, Matthew – obedience to the Law is like living always in God’s sacred vineyard. Outside the vineyard, beyond the hedge, is the land of the unfaithful, the wicked, the disobedient, the alien.

But as we read this story, God is not pleased with those who were given the vineyard, who were given the great gift of this relationship with God, this great abundance of the goodness of life. They have squandered all these opportunities. The grapes are sour, wild, useless; all will be laid to waste, the laborers sent “to a miserable death.” All that privilege, all that power, all those riches – all will be taken away from the original tenants and given to those who know the rules of God’s economy, to people who will produce “the fruits of the kingdom.”

When we talk about the kingdom of God, or the reign of God, we know who is on top, who is King of kings, Lord of lords. But the more I think about it, the more I find the word “commonwealth” gets to the heart of what God has in mind for us. I used this word last week, to illustrate another parable of God’s economy. God has created the world, which the people of God hold in common. We are all stewards of this common wealth. The vineyard is an especially rich and blessed part of this commonwealth, and God sends some stewards in just to care for it. But they have neglected their duty to the common good. They have squandered the resources, or kept the wealth to themselves, rather than producing the fruits to be shared for the general welfare of all the people.

When we think of this world as a “kingdom,” our lines of responsibility or accountability only go up, to God. Or take the more modern image of “corporation,” where the managers are accountable only to the shareholders and their bottom line. But by using the word “commonwealth,” those ties of accountability and responsibility reach out to all the community, as well as up to the one who has created this wonderful world we all share.

Maybe this is where “secular” economists have gotten into trouble. They were hoarding this wealth as “theirs alone,” rather than understanding that the wealth belongs to God, and that the uses to which we put this wealth should be God’s uses, for God’s people, for the restoration of the vineyard, for the repair of God’s broken world.

So all this talk of the commonwealth, of God’s economy – these are challenging parables to hear. Jesus means business here, but is it a business model that we recognize? That we can live with?

Or is it one that we cannot live without?