Monday, September 29, 2014

Plotting a Coup? -- Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 17A

Matthew 21:33-46 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

33 “Listen to another parable. There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a watchtower. Then he leased it to tenants and went to another country. 34 When the harvest time had come, he sent his slaves to the tenants to collect his produce. 35 But the tenants seized his slaves and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. 36 Again he sent other slaves, more than the first; and they treated them in the same way. 37 Finally he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’38 But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.’ 39 So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him. 40 Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” 41 They said to him, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time.” 
42 Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the scriptures: 
‘The stone that the builders rejected     has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing,     and it is amazing in our eyes’? 
43 Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom. 44 The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.” 
45 When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them. 46 They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, because they regarded him as a prophet.
                Jesus once again returns to the image of the vineyard – an image that spoke of Israel (God’s vineyard – Isaiah 5:1-2, 7).  As Matthew’s Gospel moves us toward the cross, we watch Jesus’ engagement with the religious leadership in the aftermath of his triumphal entry into Jerusalem.  They see him laying claim to the kingdom of God.  The religious leaders, who view Jesus as a threat to the stability of society, find themselves resisting his message.  Indeed, according to Matthew, they are plotting to kill Jesus.  And so, Jesus seeks to “out” them with this parable. 

                The vineyard has been planted, the watchtower erected, and a fence put up.  Now, all that the landowner (God?) needs is tenants to keep watch over it while away.  Where the landowner goes, we’re not told.  But it is clear that the landowner has leased out the land and expects that those who have been entrusted with the vineyard will take care of it and be ready to provide the landowner with the fruit of their labor when the harvest is due to be taken in – after all the land and the vineyard is his and he should expect something from it. 

                So, the landowner sends slaves to receive the owner’s share.  But the tenants refuse and instead mistreat them – even killing one of them.  Who are these slaves whom the owner has sent to get his due?  They are, most assuredly, the Prophets, whose message rarely was received with gratitude and graciousness.  Prophets tended to be mistreated – remember that Jeremiah was imprisoned and later tortured to death. 

                When the people refuse to listen to the slaves/prophets, the landowner decides to send his son.  Surely they will respect him and provide him with the expected share.  But once again, they choose a different course of action.  Seeing the landowner’s son arrive, they get grandiose ideas.  What if we kill the heir?  Wouldn’t that mean we would get the inheritance?  Now, why they would think this is beyond me, unless there is a clause in the estate plan of the landowner that the tenants get the vineyard in case of the son’s death.  Surely that isn’t the case? 

                But this is deal about the inheritance is not the point.  The issue here is whether the religious leaders are open to a revelation from God that deviates from what they think is the norm?   Appealing to the words of the Psalmist, Jesus speaks of the cornerstone, which the builders rejected – thus undermining the entire structure (Psalm 118:22-23).  As we read this we must be cognizant of a long tradition of reading this passage in an anti-Jewish/supersessionist manner.  That is, down through the ages Christians have read into this passage the idea that God has tossed aside the Jewish people, replacing the covenant relationship God has with them for a new one made with Christians.  Thus, we are now the Covenant people of God.  But Jesus never casts judgment on the Jewish people.  He does challenge the leadership, and Jesus continues to challenge/judge religious leadership. 

                Religious leaders have a duty to faithfully pass on the faith, from one generation to another.  They have a responsibility to resist those who would undermine the Gospel.  At the same time they have a duty to be aware of what God is saying in each new generation.  The canon of Scripture has, for most Christians, been closed for at least sixteen centuries, but as the United Church of Christ identity statement suggests – God is still speaking.  The question is whether we can discern that voice when it comes to us.  In our refusal to attend to this voice, we essentially kill the heir in order to receive the inheritance.  What is that inheritance?  Control over the church.  Too often the leaders stand as guardians of the truth and miss out on what God is saying to the church, especially when they perceive those bearing this word as challenging their authority.  As Cynthia Jarvis puts it:
Looking back, we remember with shame the church’s response to prophetic voices concerning racial injustice and the role of women.  Presently, we stone those whose words challenge the reigning economic order or definition of the family. [Feasting on the Gospels--Matthew, Volume 2, 180]
Indeed, consider the push back against Pope Francis’ emphasis on economic justice and decision to live more simply, while calling on the rest of the hierarchy to do the same.  Not everyone likes the message.  They would prefer he stick to “moral” issues and stay out of economics. 

                In the end the land owner comes back and throws out the tenants.  Actually the landowner will put them to a “miserable death.”  This statement of judgment is disconcerting to many.  We want the God of Jesus to be kindlier and gentler.  We prefer a God who loves everyone with a permissiveness that doesn’t disrupt our comfort zone.  That may be the reason why this parable rarely makes it on the list of most beloved parables.  In fact, none of the vineyard parables are very popular!  Still, despite our discomfort with the parable, even those who claim to love everyone, including their enemies, can’t help but gloat a bit when our purported enemies get their comeuppance.   Yes, there is a bit of that good old schadenfreude even in the most gracious ones among us. 

                As the passage comes to a close, the religious leaders recognize that Jesus has pointed the finger of judgment at them.  They want to get him, but they’re afraid of the crowds who hail him as a prophet.  The want to keep from making him a martyr – and therefore putting him in a class with previous prophets, including John the Baptist.   They will have to wait for another opening. 

                So the question for us is this – how open are we to the prophetic word that comes from God?  Are we tempted to do in the messenger?  We who are preachers, are we willing to listen to new voices, even as we seek to safeguard the tradition passed down from generation to generation?  What are the issues we need to wrestle with?  Race seems to always be on the table, as is true of women in church and society.  What about the equality of LGBTQ folks?  Then there's the issue of God's preferential option for the poor -- does God have such a preference?  What is Jesus saying to us?

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Where Is the Water? -- A Sermon from Exodus 17 for Pentecost 16A

Exodus 17:1-7

The Psalmist cries out:

O God, you are my God, I seek you,
   my soul thirsts for you;
my flesh faints for you,
   as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.  (Psalm 63:1)

Here in Michigan we don’t live in a “dry and weary land where there is no water.” No, we live in a state that is surrounded by 20% of the world’s fresh water.  So, thirst isn’t at the top of our concerns – is it?  

But, if you’ve ever traveled through the desert, you’ve seen a “dry and wear land.”  Just looking out the window at the desolate landscape can make you thirsty.  You might even begin to get an uneasy feeling, fearing what would happen if the car stalled. What would you do?  Did you bring enough water with you?  While many plants and animals that have adapted to the desert, human beings aren’t quite so well equipped.

As we think about the importance of water, perhaps we can look farther afield – to outer space.  I was listening to Science Friday on NPR and a University of Michigan scientist was talking about the possible discovery of water on a planet 170 light years away. That’s exciting because the presence of water means that life might be present there. Without water life can’t exist, so scientists look for it when they’re exploring the stars and planets.  In fact, it’s good to remember that our bodies, on average, are composed of about 65% water.  Some of us have more than others, but if you take away the water, we won’t exist.

So it’s no wonder water plays an important role in the biblical story.  If we go back to the beginning, we find that the Spirit hovers over the waters of chaos (Genesis 1:2).  God will divide these waters to form the dry land upon which we human beings will live.  Water gives life, but as the story of Noah reminds us – it can also take life.  Drought brought Israel to Egypt and then Israel escaped Egypt by marching through the Sea and into the desert, where they finally experienced freedom.  

Water also appears in the New Testament story.  John baptizes with water as a sign of repentance, and Jesus begins his own ministry in the waters of baptism.  Jesus will walk on the water and calm the sea.  On the Day of Pentecost those who follow Jesus are baptized – as is the household of Cornelius, welcoming the Gentiles into the community of faith.

This morning we get another snapshot of Israel’s journey from slavery to the Promised Land and water figures prominently in this episode.  When they set up camp at Rephidim they discover that there isn’t any water, because this is a “dry and weary land.”  They begin to complain – so loudly that Moses starts fearing for his life.  They cry out: “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?”  They understood that without access to fresh water, they would die and so they had begun to wonder where God was leading them, and if God was even with them.  Once again it seemed as if Moses was leading them to their deaths – and they weren’t happy about it.  Even Moses begins to wonder what God is up to.

Moses may be impatient – I would be impatient – but God is patient with this people whom God is molding into a community.  It seems as if God is testing their resolve.  But, apparently God had seen enough, and so God directs Moses to strike a group of rocks with the staff he struck the Nile with.  When he does this, the water begins to flow and the people are saved.  Now they have all the water they could want.  The question is – do they trust God to provide?  

It is good to remember that once again God taps into nature’s abundance to sustain the people. God doesn’t create water out of thin air.  Instead as Terence Fretheim suggests, “God’s actions enable their hidden creative potential to surface” [Exodus: Interpretationp. 190]. What is needed is guidance, and God provides it.  Is this not true for us as well?

As I was meditating on this passage, I began to think about all the ways in which water functions in our world.  Too much water can destroy – as a number of you experienced during the recent flooding.  Not enough water – as is true in California and Oregon – is also dangerous.  After seven years of drought, the fire season continues unabated, and the people are facing severe water restrictions.  While less visible, scientists are discovering that global temperatures are rising, glaciers are receding, and sea levels are rising.  The question is – how will we respond to these realities?  Will we take the steps necessary to slow down climate change so that life can continue to flourish?  

More visible to us have been several interesting events that remind us that even in our region, where water is abundant, access to water can be an issue.  Remember when the algae blooms on Lake Erie shut down Toledo’s water system?  Despite the abundance of water, because agricultural runoff spurred the algae blooms, the water that sustains Toledo and Monroe and other places along the western shores of Lake Erie didn’t have safe drinking water.

Then there is the debate over the development of a regional water system, which the county executives have agreed to and the Detroit City Council has approved.  All that is needed now is the approval of the three county commissions. Tied up with this debate is the question of whether access to water is a human right or a privilege.  If it is a human right, then should water be turned off, especially if people are too poor to pay their bills?  There has been a lot of debate over all of this, but once again the importance of water to life has been highlighted.  It’s one thing to water a lawn in the desert and another to have safe drinking water in a city with an abundance of water surrounding it.

Water is so central to life that many of the world’s conflicts, especially in places where water is scarce, centers on who gets control of the water.  It is, for instance, a key component of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Getting back to the people of Israel camped out at Rephidim.  This is a thirsty people.  They’re wondering about their survival.  They’re wondering whether God has their best interests in mind.  Maybe, just maybe, Moses is little more than a magician serving a malevolent deity out to get them.  Isn’t that how God is pictured in Job?  Besides, maybe this isn’t really the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  Maybe this God is little more than a mirage!  Yes, where is God now that they’ve entered the heart of the desert?  
The question of God’s absence is an important one.  If we’re honest, we have all experienced that sense of absence.  Some people more so than others.  We might find ourselves crying out with Israel “is the Lord among us or not?”

After Mother Teresa died, we learned that for much of her life, despite her holiness and service to others, she experienced the complete absence of God’s presence.  Even as she cared for the sick, the hungry, the dying, she felt like she was alone in the darkness. Yes, she was thirsting for God in a “dry and weary land, where there is no water,” and she never found relief.  Still, she remained faithful to her calling.

As the people of God we are on a journey, and sometimes that journey takes us into the desert.  So, with the psalmist we thirst for God, about whom the Psalmist declares:

15 He split rocks open in the wilderness,
   and gave them drink abundantly as from the deep.
16 He made streams come out of the rock,
   and caused waters to flow down like rivers.  (Psalm 78:15-16).

So, when we find ourselves camped in a spot where there appears to be no water available, and when we find ourselves thirsty and wondering whether God is present, the Psalmist promises us that God will be faithful.  The question is – do we thirst after God, “as in a dry and weary land, where there is no water?”

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, MI
Pentecost 16A
September 28, 2014

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Living in a Post-Theodosian World?

I have been reading Scot McKnight's Kingdom Conspiracy: Returning to the Radical Mission of the Local Church(Brazos, 2014), in which Scot emphasizes the linkage between the local church and the kingdom of God. He insists that to live in the kingdom, one must live under the rule of King Jesus.  The role of the church is not to transform the world, but rather bear witness to kingdom values within an alternative community.  There is something enticing about building the church, and thus building the kingdom. But I'm not convinced.  In fact, I think that it can lead us to further abdicate responsibility for this world.  For me the mission that Jesus sends us on is rooted in the Abrahamic one of being a blessing to the nations.  My full review will have to wait for my finishing the book, but in my reflecting on this and other conversations about the role of the church in the world, I had this idea.  Perhaps we're not living in a post-Constantinian world, but a post Theodosian one.

Friday, September 26, 2014

For ISIS, the United States’ Military Strikes Confirm God’s Favor -- Sightings (Jeffrey Kaplan)

You might say that what is happening in Iraq and Syria is a battle for the soul of Islam.  For many Muslims ISIS or ISIL or IS is an apostate version of Islam.  They don't wish to accord it legitimacy than most Christians want to accord legitimacy to the Aryan Nation or Westboro Baptist Church.  But there are others, taken with apocalyptic visions of service to the cause of world Islam who are quite happy to follow one who claims to be Caliph and might even be the expected Mahdi (an Islamic Messiah).  In this Sightings piece, Jeffrey Kaplan points out the religious foundations for this movement that has sent shivers up the spines of persons everywhere.  Since the essay leaves us without a concluding interpretation, I will leave that up to you to consider what all of this means.  

For ISIS, the United States’ Military Strikes Confirm God’s Favor
Thursday | Sept 25 2014
Territory under the control of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria                  Image: screenshot
President Obama’s decision to engage directly the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) means that the United States is poised for yet another post-9/11 Middle Eastern conflict. This essay describes the world as seen through the eyes of ISIS fighters and their wider Muslim audiences.

Thursday, September 25, 2014


RED, BROWN, YELLOW, BLACK, WHITE WHO'S MORE PRECIOUS IN GOD'S SIGHT?: A call for diversity in Christian missions and ministry By Leroy Barber with Velma Maia Thomas.  New York:  Jericho Books, 2014.  Xiv + 206 pages.

The election of Barack Obama as President gave, for a moment, the illusion that America was now a post-racial society.  It was time to celebrate the fact that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream had been fulfilled.  Yes, we had reached the goal where people are now judged not by the “color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”  If only this were true.  While many White Americans are convinced that President Obama’s election heralded a new day in America, facts on the ground should have disabused us of that notion.  Yes, we elected a Black President, but many of the problems facing people of color, which the Civil Rights Movement hoped to deal with, remain with us.  So, is it really time to move on to other things, having checked this issue off the list?  

Although great strides have been made over the past fifty years, eleven o’clock on Sunday morning remains the most segregated hour of the week.  The power structures in the religious world remain largely in the hands of the White majority, who largely control the purse strings of our religious institutions.