Saturday, October 18, 2014

"Tax Policy" - October 19, 2014

Matthew 22:15-22
“Tax Policy”
October 19, 2014

How do you balance conflicting loyalties?

You are a religious Jew living in a land occupied by a foreign army and are asked to pay taxes that will ultimately support the occupation.  If you don’t pay them, the army may take it out on everyone by force.  What’s worse, the coins that are in circulation picture the emperor as a god, so you who are a part of a people who have been taught to avoid idolatry at all costs and to worship God and God alone are now being asked to carry what is essentially a pagan idol in your pocket to pay those taxes. 

“Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” [Matthew 22:17]

What’s the answer?  When the Pharisees asked Jesus that question, it was because they “plotted to entrap him in what he said.” [Matthew 22:15]  No matter whether he said, “Yes,” or, “No,” he could be made out to be disloyal, whether to his own people or to the ruling authorities or to God. 

Thank goodness none of us ever find ourselves trying to make decisions like that.  None of us ever have to evaluate whether to vote for a political candidate with whom we agree on some things and disagree on others.  None of us ever have to ask how far we can allow latitude for disagreement before we compromise our integrity.

Within the United Methodist Church these days, that’s a big question for clergy, because of the same-sex marriage issue.  Those who believe the time has come to allow it are nonetheless under the operating rules of the Book of Discipline that strictly forbids United Methodist clergy from officiating, and the Book of Discipline can only be altered by General Conference, which meets every four years.  The next session is in Portland in 2016 and is unlikely to make that change.  So they are stuck between loyalties.  Those who oppose it find themselves part of a denomination where they feel that a large proportion of people have forsaken biblical standards and they wonder if, by remaining, they are supporting an organization that they consider to be on the edge of corruption.

How do you balance conflicting loyalties?

Sports teams now regularly hold games and practice on Sundays.  Even if they stay away from Sunday morning, which is not always the case, an away game held across the county or further that starts at 1:00 means that players need to be on the road by 11:00 or so.  (By the way, you will often see an acolyte at our early service wearing a uniform so that they can both go to church and play in a game.  Not every church has an 8:30 service, though.)  The recognition that is offered to athletes in our society at all levels is pervasive, and the desire to belong is very strong in children and adolescents.  Parents want the best for their children, and sports teach them many important lessons.  At the same time that both the kids and the parents recognize the importance of Sunday School and church, if they skip church no one is going to say they cannot be here next week.  If they miss practice or a game, that may very well be it for the season.  The next thing you know, it has been months since we’ve seen them.

How do you balance conflicting loyalties?

Have you ever heard the term “Sandwich Generation”?  It refers to people of a certain age who may be the parents of those kids on the sports teams or who are in school plays or taking tuba lessons or who need extra help with their school work or a ride to Brownies; people who also have older parents who need a ride to the doctor or have to get to the Acme because they just ran out of eggs, milk, and butter yesterday and the forecast is for six inches of snow tonight; people who have been asked to work overtime this evening because that same snow storm may close work tomorrow.

How do you balance conflicting loyalties?

You know that your family needs the support you give them through the wages you earn.  There are taxes to be paid.  There are insurance bills and co-pays.  PECO does not accept payment in chickens and eggs.  So you work long hours to make ends meet, so long that your husband or wife, who is also working hard, has already turned in by the time you get home three or four nights a week.

Jesus’ answer about loyalties was brilliant in the way it threw things back onto the people trying to entrap him. 

“Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” [Matthew 22:21]

Basically, he’s putting into words what we all know: that there are hard choices to make and that we make them, like it or not; and that they cannot be made without remembering to include God in your calculations.  The Pharisees were asking for one, hard-and-fast rule.  He refused to give that, but insisted instead that people consult their consciences.

That could mean that people of good faith could very well end up on opposite sides of the most difficult questions.  There’s a story about how Rose Kennedy taught her children about voting.  She is said to have told them, “When you enter the voting booth and the curtain closes behind you,” (which is how the machines were designed in those days), “there will be a lot of little levers that you can ignore.  There will be two larger ones, labeled ‘Republican’ and ‘Democrat’.  If you press the one marked ‘Republican’, God will strike you dead.”  You do know that’s a joke, right?  You do also know, I hope, that you should pray very seriously about every decision that you make as a citizen.

In fact, every major decision should be made with prayer, regardless of whether it’s a public or a private matter.  It’s safe to say that God likes to be consulted on things, and that our own lives turn out better when we take the time to do that.  That is a good principle to observe when the trickiest conflicts come along.  Marilynne Robinson, who won the Pulitzer Prize in 2005 for her novel Gilead, is someone who is good at lifting up the complexities of life.  She says of herself,

“I find that my praying turns into thinking.  It’s like trying to contain something, and then perhaps it turns into prayer.  It’s almost impossible for me to maintain it as a purely distinct activity.”[1]

That is just as it should be.  Pray with your mind, and think with your prayer.  That is balance, and how to find it.  Then, and only then, will you know the best way to “give to God the things that are God’s.”  [Matthew 22:21]

            Whatever is left over, the emperor may have.

[1] Marilynne Robinson, interviewed by Sarah Pulliam Bailey, found at

Saturday, October 11, 2014

"Called and Chosen" - October 12, 2014

Matthew 22:1-14

This is one of those parables that leaves me saying, “You have to have been there to get it.”

On the surface, what you have is a deeply disturbing story.  There’s a wedding and the king who is the father of the groom invites guests who don’t come.  Some of them send their regrets even though their excuses are lame.  Others decided it’s their chance to make a political statement and it gets very ugly.

“‘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.”  [Matthew 22:4-7]

That’s when the king loses his temper.  It’s the end of the road for some of them.  When the smoke clears, he has random people dragged in off the street to the wedding banquet.

So far so good.  It’s an understandable, if extreme, response.

Then the weird part is tacked on.

“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.’ For many are called, but few are chosen.”  [Matthew 22:11-14]
How is it that someone who hadn’t planned on being there can be blamed for not being dressed for the occasion?

Like I say, you have to have been there.

Last spring, we held an event at Steel City Coffeehouse at the corner of Bridge and Main Sts.  We called it “The Spring Thaw Concert”.  I’ll spare you a lot of the details, but it took a good bit of legwork to pull off.  When the evening of the concert arrived, I got there and found that the staff hadn’t been notified of the nature of the event and had written on the signboard that the place was reserved for a private party.  I had that changed right away.  It was about an hour before the concert.

The musician arrived thirty minutes later.  He had called earlier in the day to let me know that he would be a solo act instead of half of a duo because the bass player’s grandmother in Ireland had died the day before and he was on his way across the Atlantic for the funeral.

Fifteen minutes later, a friend I had invited arrived and stationed himself near the door, against the wall.  Five minutes afterward, two people from church came in.  The soundcheck began.  It was concert time, with three people there.  That’s when the evening switched from a fundraising event to an outreach event.

The bouncer and I went out onto the sidewalk and began to invite people in as they went by.  “Free concert and free refreshments tonight!”  “Got some good music going on.”  “First United Methodist is throwing a concert tonight.”  As it turned out, it was an unusually slow night all along Bridge St. and even Molly Maguire’s was looking empty, but a few people did wander in.  “Free music and free coffee!”

I enjoyed talking to the bouncer, and we did have time to talk.  I also enjoyed talking with some of the people who sat down for awhile.  There was one woman who was there with her son, who was about eleven years old.  She told me she goes to a Mormon church and then pointed to her coffee and whispered, “But I do indulge sometimes.”  The couple who were there from the church shared a pizza that they had brought with a younger couple who had come in.  All of that was fine.

There were some people, however, who just came in for a minute or two, saw that the place was pretty much empty, and went right back out.  I found myself becoming annoyed at them more than anybody else.  What got me was that they just didn’t give the whole thing a chance.

So when I read the parable now, I think I see something that I didn’t see before I found myself in a position similar to the father of the groom.  I see that there’s an incredible sense of frustration that comes along when something really good (and the music was terrific) is placed in front of someone unexpectedly and freely and when you go out on a limb to do that, and then it is turned down.

God offers us human beings a chance to be part of the exciting life of his kingdom.  He offers us a chance to hear its music and enjoy a seat at his own table.  He has gone to a good deal of trouble, and in the person of his Son has endured infinite pain so that the doors are open.  Then we human beings do what?  Yawn?

The wedding clothes that he looks for are not the outward things.  They represent the joy of being there, the surprise of being called to the party, the appreciation of God’s great generosity, the awareness of the amazing grace that saves a wretch like me.  They represent the sort of excited response that we call “discipleship”. 

“As they were going along the road, someone said to him, ‘I will follow you wherever you go.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.’ To another he said, ‘Follow me.’ But he said, ‘Lord, first let me go and bury my father.’ But Jesus said to him, ‘Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.’ Another said, ‘I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.’  Jesus said to him, ‘No one who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.’”  [Luke 9:57-62]
Jesus was not some uncaring person who had no feeling for people’s physical, social, and emotional needs.  Far from it!  He did, however, have the awareness that discipleship includes a sense of urgency and isn’t anything to be brushed off or minimized.

            We are all called into the kingdom, and from there we are chosen for the excitement of discipleship.  So get ready.  John Wesley summed up what might or might not be asked of a disciple when he wrote a prayer that we often use around New Year’s.

“I am no longer my own, but thine.
Put me to what thou wilt, rank me with whom thou wilt.
Put me to doing, put me to suffering.
Let me be employed for thee or laid aside for thee,
exalted for thee or brought low for thee.
Let me be full, let me be empty.
Let me have all things, let me have nothing.
I freely and heartily yield all things to thy pleasure and disposal.”

Again, I say, “Get ready.”

Saturday, October 4, 2014

"Other Tenants" - October 5, 2014

Matthew 21:33-46

            Usually, World Communion Sunday means a celebration of the way that faith in Christ is found in all parts of the world.  We have included part of that aspect today.  We have music drawn from different nations.  We have cloths on the altar that represent different parts of the world.  The bread we will use at communion is made up of many types that people around the world see on their table and think of when they pray, “Give us this day our daily bread.”  I hope that on the first Sunday of October, 2015 I will be standing right here saying something that simply highlights the variety of ways that the Lord is honored around the globe.  Today, however, because the Body of Christ is one in all the earth, I just will say a brief word about one part of the Body.

            In our day we are seeing, under tragic circumstances, a cataclysmic change in the Middle East.  We are seeing the suffering that is forcing the change and the suffering that the change produces.  Paul said that
“If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.”  [I Corinthians 12:26]
That is part of what it means for us to be one. 

            Christianity is evaporating in the Middle East.  I hesitate to say anything about that area of the world because almost everything anyone says gets drawn into the vortex of issues that surround the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the Iraqi Wars, and the role of the oil companies, and the disputes between the Kurds and Turks, and the arguments between Hamas and Fatah, and the shifting alliances among the Syrians and Egyptians and Lebanese and Saudis and Yemenis and the United Arab Emirates.  It’s the sort of mess where even simple facts are hard to determine because it’s all tainted with bias of one sort or another.  I do think that the BBC, the British Broadcasting Corporation is a reliable source.  In 2010, one of their reporters wrote, “A century ago, 20% of the population in the region was Christian. Today Christians account for only about 5% and their numbers are still dwindling.”[1]  Since the current terrorism has broken out in Syria and Iraq, thousands upon thousands of people have died or fled.  Not all of them are Christian, but many are, and the exodus of Christians from places where the faith flourished in its earliest days has left the area with a far lower proportion of Christians than at any time since the days of the Roman Empire.

            Let me, however, look back to those days and even earlier.  The Church began on the day of Pentecost in Jerusalem, and flourished there.  It began to spread quickly.  The apostle Phillip shared the faith with a high official from Ethiopia, who carried it to Africa.  There were at least some disciples in Damascus by the time of Paul’s conversion, somewhere around 40 A.D., give or take a couple of years.  Nevertheless, the bulk of the community remained centered on Jerusalem.  And then, the book of Acts [8:1] tells us,
“a severe persecution began against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout the countryside of Judea and Samaria.”
Later on it says that people traveled even further afield.
“Now those who were scattered because of the persecution that took place over Stephen travelled as far as Phoenicia, [that means modern Lebanon] Cyprus, and Antioch, [which could refer to a city in Syria or one in Turkey] and they spoke the word to no one except Jews.” [Acts 11:19]
Even with those limitations, precisely because of the persecution, Christianity was on its way to becoming a world religion, no longer connected to a specific place or geography, the way that Judaism still focuses on Jerusalem and the Muslims focus on Mecca.  So, as terrible as it was, God used that time of trouble for good.  What Jesus had spoken of was coming to pass, when he had foreseen the kingdom of God becoming the common citizenship of many nations.
“‘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 watch-tower. Then he leased it to tenants and went to another country. When the harvest time had come, he sent his slaves to the tenants to collect his produce. But the tenants seized his slaves and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. Again he sent other slaves, more than the first; and they treated them in the same way. Finally he sent his son to them, saying, “They will respect my son.” But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, “This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.” So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him. Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?’ 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.’” [Matthew 21:33-41]

That didn’t go over well.  It never goes over well when anybody says that your most cherished and deeply-rooted customs are not always going to be “all that and a bag of chips”.

            The story of the world, what we call history, isn’t about any one culture or any one people.  It isn’t even entirely about people at all.  It’s about how God’s grace works itself out in the world, among people and among nations and cultures and languages. 

            The poet Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote a poem with the scary title “That Nature Is a Heracletian Fire and of the Comfort of the Resurrection”.  The first part of it is about how everything decays and falls apart and the sense of despair makes him think of himself as a ship in a storm, then at the last moment he draws up short and says,

                                                “…Enough! the Resurrection,
A heart’s-clarion!  Away grief’s gasping, ‘joyless days, dejection.
                        Across my foundering deck shone
A beacon, and eternal beam.’  Flesh fade, and mortal trash
Fall to the residuary worm: ‘ world’s wildfire, leave but ash:
                        In a flash, at a trumpet crash,
I am all at once what Christ is, ‘ since he was what I am, and
This Jack, joke, poor potsherd, ‘ patch, matchwood, immortal diamond,
                        Is immortal diamond.”

Tragic events are part of history and part of our lives: tragic events, but not tragedy, because the end of it all lies in God’s hands, not ours, and God has this habit of turning things in directions we little suspect, and always – always – for the good.

[1] David Willey, “Rome ‘Crisis’ Talks on Middle East Christians” October 10, 2010.  Found at