10-17-17 - Giving With God

Then Jesus said to them, ‘Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.’

Sounds simple, right? Give to God the things that are God’s. But what belongs to God? Doesn’t the emperor also belong to God? And if everything belongs to God – why does God need our gifts? Our pledges? Our offerings?

Maybe God doesn’t need anything from us. Maybe we need to give, because things get squirrely when we don’t, and because we are transformed when we do.

It is tempting to see the two kinds of “giving” that Jesus talks about here as similar, parallel tracks. We owe the government our taxes to pay for the goods and services we need governments to render. We owe God our “dues” to pay for… what? Clergy and church buildings? Charity?

Once we equate giving our money and resources for God’s mission to “taxes” or “dues,” it becomes an obligation, a contractual exchange. That is not what giving is intended to be for Christians. We are not called to give to God. We are called to give in relationship with God, to give because it is the best way we know to reciprocate in gratitude for all that we’ve received, to join into the celebration of blessing.

If our giving is stunted, it may be that we are not all that grateful, not feeling very blessed. We give because it sets us free, opens us up, changes our hearts. We give because we love seeing what happens for others when we do.

Where does giving bring you the most joy? Where do you feel the least willing?
Both answers offer ground for prayer – and action. Maybe we are being invited to give additionally in both categories. Maybe we want to strengthen our gratitude muscles.

We are to give as God has given us – and in Christ, God gave us everything. I was reminded recently that the great U2 song, “With or Without You” is not about a human relationship, but the struggle to exist in faith and intimacy with the God you cannot see. (The “she” in U2 songs often refers to the Holy Spirit or to grace…)
See the stone set in your eyes / See the thorn twist in your side. (A Pauline reference.)
I can’t live, with or without you,” Bono sings.

And then comes the repeated refrain which applies to both God, and to us in relationship with the God whose essential nature it is to give, a nature we gradually take on:
And you give, and you give, and you give yourself away.

And we never run out.

10-16-17 - God's Currency

In this week's gospel story we witness yet another confrontation between Jesus and the religious rulers, this time over whether to pay taxes to the Roman oppressors. They thought this a tidy trap – if he said "No," they could have him arrested for sedition; if "Yes," they could brand him a collaborator before his adoring crowds. Win/win, right?

Not for them. Jesus asks for a Roman coin. "Whose image do you see imprinted here?" he asks. "Caesar," they answer. "It's easy," he replies, "You owe this to the one who issued it. Give to the emperor what belongs to him, to God what belongs to God." And he dances out of another trap.

Genesis tells us that humankind was made in the image of God. St. Paul asserts that Jesus is the perfect image of the invisible God, and that we are united with Christ in baptism. So we are stamped with the image of God in birth, and in rebirth. We are the coins God has issued to the world, if you will, the currency by which God's generosity is realized.

What are coins? They are utilitarian, sure, yet also precious. And they are used to purchase things of value to their possessor. They can bring dreams into being. What is God’s dream? That all of God's children thrive in freedom and plenty and wholeness.

Does it change your self-perception to think of yourself as a coin bearing the image of your creator, the currency of the Almighty in the creation? How might we be expended as "God's coins" to bring that dream of God into being?

In prayer today, we might offer ourselves anew to God for service, and ask the Holy Spirit to show us where God wants to spend us today, or this week, or this year, or this lifetime. What visions come up as you sit in stillness with that question? Does anything resonate with your own dreams?

The currency we have bears the likeness of temporal authorities, and that's the realm in which we spend it. We bear the likeness of God, and so we give ourselves to be spent in God's realm. Bought with a price, we can more than double our value.

10-13-17 - In or Out?

Jesus' parables often end with a tag line; this one's is: "For many are called, but few are chosen.”
I guess this refers to the banquet hall being full of people who were invited without regard to their suitability, to be evaluated and sorted out later. It’s not much comfort, is it, to think that just being in the room doesn’t guarantee inclusion in the household of God.

Are we “in?” Do we want to be? Are we actually at the party, or just hanging out on the sidelines (or on the rope line hoping to be waved in)? Put another way, are we lukewarm church-goers or passionate Christ-followers? I've heard that an Episcopal version of this verse is, “Many are cold, but few are frozen.” What is our temperature at this feast?

Today try to imagine yourself at a feast, a celebration, whatever that looks like for you. The room is crowded. Where are you? Near the table, hugging a wall somewhere, or in between? Why are you where you are? Where is Jesus in that room? Can you have a chat with him? (It's one way to pray...)

I’d like to believe we are both called and chosen; I’ve never held to doctrines like predestination or election. At the very least, I believe we are all invited, and we all have a choice to be present to the feast or pass it by. I hope you pull up a chair and pick up a fork.

I end this week with a hymn I wrote some years ago to go with this gospel reading.
(If you want to sing it in your head, I put it to the tune of hymn 544, Duke Street, "Jesus shall reign where'er the sun")

Clothed in Holiness

Clothed in holiness, bathed in glory, Born anew in sacred story.
From north and south, from west and east, Saints throng to your wedding feast.

Send out the heralds, the banquet waits, Leave your distractions, don’t be late.
The master calls, the feast prepared 
of food divine and wine so rare.

If the invited will not come Send out the word to deaf and dumb
All who are sick, lame, hopeless, lost Called by the host who spares no cost.

And if your clothes are ragged, old, New garments spun of finest gold
Are giv’n to all who heed the call: 
This invitation is for all.

So in we pour, all sorts, all kinds, The least in front, the first behind.
No class or label can divide This Bridegroom from his chosen bride.

Clothed in holiness, bathed in glory, Born anew in sacred story.
From north and south, from west and east We throng into our wedding feast.

10-12-17 - Fashion Police

I just attended my goddaughter’s wedding in England, and faced a big question: Did I have to wear a hat? My airport driver said yes; the mother of the bride said most would not wear one. Whew! Heaven forbid the godmother from America be unsuitably attired. Had I been in Jesus’ parable of the wedding banquet, the consequences might have been severe. As Matthew tells it, the tale takes an odd turn after the influx of late arrivals from the streets and lanes:

“Those servants went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests. But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe, and he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?’ And he was speechless. Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’"

Wow – does correct attire matter that much to this king in Jesus’ story? This part of the story is puzzling; it seems so unjust. This man didn’t know he was coming to a wedding, right? How could he have been expected to wear a “wedding robe,” whatever that is? And isn’t Jesus the one who said, “Don’t judge a book by its cover?” Actually no… but the sentiment is about right. Jesus did say to judge what’s inside a person, not externals. What the heck is going on here?

No one fully knows, of course. Some scholars think there were certain items of clothing people wore to weddings. Here’s my guess: that even those who didn’t have much advance invitation had the opportunity to turn, to repent, to “clean up,” as it were. Is that what is meant by the “wedding robe?” Maybe this person was wandering around, clueless, unconscious, unrepentant and unresponsive.

There are verses in the Bible that speak of being “clothed in righteousness,” and “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.” “As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.”

And in Revelation 19:7-8 we have this promise: “...for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and his bride has made herself ready; to her it has been granted to be clothed with fine linen, bright and pure — for the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints.”

Do you feel “clothed in righteousness” today, or in some other attire? How well does it fit? How does it look on you? Might you try on another "emotional outfit" that better expresses how you want to be seen at God’s table?

Martin Luther wrote of God’s grace in Christ as the “Great Exchange,” by which Christ took on our filthy beggars’ rags and gives us his royal robes to wear. Christ has clothed us in HIS holiness. He covers even the most shameful parts of us, the parts we think are unlovable. He loves us into love.

In his righteousness, his holiness, his glory, we can stand unashamed, unhidden. We can allow our true selves to be seen, knowing that we are loved beyond measure by the God who made us, redeemed us, and loves us to the end of time. We are princes and princesses at a royal wedding – let’s dress like we know it, hats and all.

10-11-17 - Get Me New Guests!

I find it hard to read this parable of the wedding banquet and not think of the many half-empty churches all over America on Sunday mornings. In the story, the King has prepared a beautiful wedding feast for his son and invited all the people who used to come to his house… and now none of them will. Enraged, he says to his servants,

“The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.” Those servants went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests.

Given how Jesus has been lambasting the religious leaders for their unmerciful self-righteousness, and how he’s been known to interact with the not-good-enough of his society – the lame, lepers, extortioners, “loose women” – it seems obvious that in his story these are who the folks on the streets represent. These outsiders are found, herded onto the king’s buses and brought back to populate his banquet hall. The servants aren’t choosy – they bring everybody in.

What would it look like if we sent buses around shelters and parks – and tony brunch places – on Sunday mornings and invited people to come to our feasts? Would we be prepared to deal with strangers, people’s disappointment and addictions, the chips on their shoulders? Would we be prepared to see them not as wounded strangers but as gifts, with assets and strengths we need in our congregations?

What would it look like if we took church out to them instead of asking them into our buildings? For a time, my church in Stamford did this in a “tougher” section of town. We started just bringing sandwiches to the curb as people sat in their lawn chairs with their bottles, then began offering healing prayer and before long I was telling “Jesus stories,” aka preaching on the street. It was amazing - until gentrification struck and the people who hung out there were dispersed, and that ministry faded away. But we had the muscle memory of doing it, a vivid reminder of what church can be outside our walls.

The poor and the lame are not the only people God wants at the feast. God also wants the stressed over-achievers, the multi-tasking moms, the doubters and questioners. This parable suggests that God wants everybody at God’s table. Who are we not inviting?

That is the spiritual task I suggest today: make a list of the sorts of people to whom your congregation does not seem to be extending an invitation. Who is calling to you?

Many of the ones who are being invited are not coming. Who else are we to invite?

10-10-17 - No Thanks

I once had a friend who would decline to do things with me if she received other offers she preferred, even if she’d already accepted my invitation. While I admired her honesty, I felt that I didn’t rate very high on her list. Not that I was about to burn down her village or anything…

The invited guests in Jesus’ parable of the wedding banquet have no qualms about turning down the King’s invitation to his feast – in fact, they seem to have no respect for this king at all. The first group just say, “No.” Then the king sends out other servants and says, 

“Tell those who have been invited: Look, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet.” But they made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business, while the rest seized his slaves, maltreated them, and killed them. 

One to his farm, another to his business. In Luke’s version the excuses are more creative – one just got married and didn’t want to leave his new wife just yet. Who are these people who so little value God's invitations?

Well, on any given day, it can be you or me or anyone we know. It seems there is no end to other priorities when it comes to engaging the spiritual. Connecting with God has to be on our schedule, and not when the coach has called a practice, or the boss a new deadline, or there’s anything else we’d rather do. Just think of all the reasons people give for not coming to church.

And yet, if you’re reading this today, chances are you have put engaging with God-Life above quite a few other demands on your time. Something about spending time and energy in the presence of God or God’s people, in praise and worship, in acts of mercy and justice, has been compelling enough that you’ve actually said yes to this invitation to the banquet, not once but many times.

What made the difference for you? If we can identify that, maybe we can frame the invitation so that more people in our lives can respond to it. What is it about the way we practice our faith that sometimes obscures the life at its heart? Inviting people in needn't mean lowest-common-denominator consumer Christianity – some of the highest-commitment faith communities are the most robust. But the banquet does have to be lively, full of life, real, true life. That’s what people are hungry for.

Make a list today of all the reasons you’ve said yes to God’s invitation, and why you stay at God’s table. And if there is a list of excuses you’ve made or continue to make, list those too. Look at both lists and see what common threads emerge. Where in these gifts and obstacles might you find the seeds of an invitation to a friend or acquaintance?

God’s banquet is waiting. In this life, we only experience the feast in parts – but oh, how rich even those morsels can be. Who is God sending you out to invite?

10-9-17 - Everybody Loves a Wedding

Oh, a nice story about a wedding; what a relief after the violence of last week’s vineyard parable. Who doesn’t love a wedding? Except that this nice parable about a wedding looks more like a Quentin Tarantino flick, with an enraged host, slaughtered guests and a bewildered party crasher. Granted, this is how Matthew relates Jesus’ story, and he seems often to ratchet up the violence; in Luke’s telling it is a lot milder.

This parable is not actually about a wedding – it’s a story about invitation. An invitation spurned by indifferent guests, and the consequences. It’s a story about a host who won’t take “no” for an answer. The nutshell version:

A king gives a wedding banquet for his son. He sends servants to gather the invited guests, but they won’t come to the feast. He sends other servants with the message that the feast is ready, but these are mocked and given excuses, and then molested and killed. The enraged king retaliates, killing the offenders and burning their city, and then sends his servants out to the streets to invite everyone they find, “both good and bad,” to fill his wedding hall. One, who is not appropriately dressed, gets thrown out. Nice story, huh? (It makes a LOT more sense in Luke…)

What is this parable actually about? Like many of Jesus’ tales, it illustrates his claim that the leading religious figures have ignored God’s invitation offered through the prophets, and ultimately through Jesus, to come to the feast prepared for them. Since the people of Israel have not been faithful to the Lord their God, God will send representatives to the “highways and byways,” gathering up the good and the not-so-good people in his realm – and sort out later who gets to stick around. If the King in Jesus’ story represents God, it’s not a lovely depiction of God – especially the part about killing the would-be guests and burning down their city.

On another level, this is a story about how easy it can be to put aside the claims and gifts of God and lose ourselves in the mundane and the worldly. We’ll explore that aspect more tomorrow.

Today, try reading the story aloud to yourself, and notice where you get snagged. Give it some thought and read it again… what questions arise? What invitations do you hear? What warnings?

It can be hard to find the Good News in this story – it’s very bad news for the people who have ignored God’s call to be his people, and so-so news for the ones scooped up on the streets, who may get to stay at the feast, or may be tossed into outer darkness. Where is the Good News for you?