by Suzannah Porter
Re-written in the quiet of the dark of night while I await the tally of the election, this piece evolved and grew under the weight of waiting. In the early morning hours, it grew from one of my least favorite scriptures to the one that carried me through the next morning, guiding my path as I struggled with what the faithful are called to do while we wait, and what we are called to sacrifice for peace.
Matthew 25:1-13 indeed used to be one of my least favorite verses. It was one of those verses that ended up with a lot of doodles in my bulletin. Usually accompanied by the message of "Look Busy, Jesus is Coming," it follows scripture full of similar sounding bottom lines of preparedness. It leaves me feeling uncomfortable and wiggly in my seat. I am not clergy. My context for uncomfortable scripture is most usually without conversation about theology, and more commonly the experience of sitting in a service riding along with liturgy and prayers about grace and love, suddenly punctuated with readings like this that are conspicuously without either.
So let us set the scene. Tradition held that once the groom makes an appearance, the wedding festivities are supposed to begin with the bridesmaids processing forward with their lamps and torches. Everyone is waiting for the collective big entrance to begin, a light show blazing through the shadows. But in this parable, the groom is delayed. Apparently hella delayed, because everyone had basically fallen asleep waiting for the groom to show. After this incredibly long period of time, the participants are alerted that the long awaited VIP member of the party has finally arrived. Now, after waiting an eternity to the point of taking a long nap, half of the participants face a quandary: they are not actually prepared. These "foolish bridesmaids" are meant to carry burning lamps, but they didn't bring any oil. The other half of the bridesmaids, identified as "wise," brought oil for their lamps.
Like most of the kids in every group work session of every class I have ever taken, the "foolish" ones (who had plenty of time to remedy the situation and do their homework) demand some of the resources from their wiser counterparts. Those of us who have been denied a place at God's table are rather familiar with this scenario. Queer folks, BIPOC folks, disabled folks, and often women in general, each of us clear that we were never assured a place at God's table by our less marginalized siblings, have followed the rules and prepared ourselves to the letter. Once there, someone nearby has taken the rules far less seriously than we, and they turn to us and demand accommodation. There's pressure to bend and keep afloat the ones who didn't do the work in order to keep the peace, and let the party go off without a hitch.
And this is the point where I start to doodle in my bulletin because I have become uncomfortable. There's a couple bits of scripture that make me pretty uncomfortable, but this one seems particularly unloving. I remember no one talking about what I perceived to be biblical mean girls that wouldn't share. As a lay person in a conflict-avoidant denomination, we are given the constant overall themes about Jesus bringing Peace and Grace, and not a lot of conversation breaking down the scripture that seems to contradict this saccharine simplicity. This parable shocks me the way that Matthew 10:34-36 shocks me - to be sitting in a service with liturgy about peace and love and be hit with the diddy, "Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to turn 'a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law- a man's enemies will be the members of his own household'" The truth is Peace doesn't come without conflict, and it wasn't until family gathered around Thanksgiving of 2016 that many of us white, progressive people came to understand how the family upheaval of Matthew 10:34-36 might be a part of the process of ensuring that the promises of the Gospel were extended to more vulnerable people. The more we vocalized our concern for those on the margins - ostracized for their queerness, shot down by police for the color of their skin, left without healthcare when sick - the more conflict we felt in our own families.
Likewise, while we wait for the election results to trickle in, Matthew 25:1-13 calls me to the same uncomfortable conflict that comes after we have prepared ourselves for the Gospel, the same uncomfortable conflict that simultaneously opposes all the saccharine versions of "Peace and Grace" my church has sold me in its quest for theology for the lowest common denominator. And deep inside my internalized misogyny that has always demanded I provide 100% free labor to anyone who demands it, the next part still shocks me: The wise bridesmaids don't hand over their oil. They suggest instead that the others go find some of their own.
I mean, it goes against everything I have ever been taught about church, being a woman (and the eldest female child), and the exponential sum of combining those two things together. My church teaches forgiveness and Grace, and commonly covers all the uncomfortable parts of Scripture with a topcoat of these two things that is less like sugarcoating and more like aspartame. At first taste it is sweet, but the aftertaste reveals its lack of authenticity; I am left wanting and with an exhausting headache. My femaleness has had "sharing is caring" drilled into it ever since birth, and the world has demanded that "sharing is caring" mantra at every turn, regardless of what it cost me. It's been the universal foundation of all free labor I have exerted in church. The more I give it, the more it is expected. The less I draw attention to what it costs me, the more I am lauded. This scripture turns everything about the traditional expectations of my role in the church upside down.
And so while I've sat through many a sermon addressing the questions "Who are the foolish bridesmaids," and "Who is the Groom," I am instead interested in, "What is the oil?" and "Why would giving up the oil be unwise?" Apparently, the lesson is that it is not wise to share in this instance, and I want to know why - what is the nature of the oil that we are actually called to not share?
When it comes to Thanksgiving, elections, or church, I am not a party person. This mostly is related to the intersection of my femaleness, queerness, and health conditions. While Thanksgiving conversations will include asking me about my health, they will also demand - in the name of peace and family unity - that I not talk about my anxiety over the recent election that affects whether or not I have healthcare. While elections will demand I turn out to vote, they will also demand - in the name of peace and unity - that I accept police 'reform' instead of a complete reimagining of neighborhood safety, even though the police are murdering my siblings of color. While church demands my offerings, not only in money but in the free labor of technology and musical ministry, they also demand - in the name of peace and unity - that I relinquish my call for them to become RIC congregations, a designation that comes with doing the hard work of preparing a congregation to be welcoming and affirming of our LGBTQIA+ siblings.
The last point strikes a particularly sharp dagger in my soul. I've learned to keep the edges of my mouth just slightly upturned in those conversations about LGBTQIA+ inclusion, because to let a frown leak out on my face would so incense the cult of respectability that demands my acquiescence. Without me handing over a smile during conversations that drain my soul of its fire, the other party will immediately jump to 'how angry' I am and shut off the conversation. While you tell me my queerness is an abomination but you 'love me anyway,' while you tell me the congregation isn't ready to even discuss the work, and while you tell me that welcoming LGBTQIA+ people doesn't require actually affirming their place in God's church, I am required to look as though I am thoughtfully entertaining the notion that my community is subpar. It takes all my strength to keep my 'respectable' smile on my face, as you remove half the oil from my lamp, and drain the fuel from the fire in my soul. All so church can do half of the work but still hold on to it's respectable place in the processional.
While waiting to get into the party, I am not unlike the bridesmaids: I'm asked to sacrifice a lot of the prep work that specifically is necessary for the kind of party Jesus is planning, and I am asked to do it so that many of the participants can appear to have done their job, when they in fact didn't think that their participation required work. So I would venture to say that if the bridesmaids had shared their oil, the party procession would have had to be a lot quicker. The light of the flames would have had to go out a lot sooner, or their intensity be a lot dimmer in order to last the length of time for which the processional was planned. And as I made those sacrifices in the past, waiting for a church to decide to embark on becoming RIC, waiting for the holiday meal to be served, I suddenly understand what is in that precious oil.
Last Sunday, I had the privilege of joining Rev. Carla Christopher and Rev. Brenda Bos in a brief All Saints Sunday service online for the queer community in the ELCA LGBTQ & Allies Facebook Group. It was unabashedly queer, thanks also in part to the most amazing prayers written by J Pace Warfield-May. We named our queer ancestors and ally ancestors who had lit fires, provided sanctuary, illuminated theology, and too often were gone too soon. We named our fears for the future, we mourned the losses of the past, we called each other family. No one there gave away an ounce of oil and I felt God's presence in worship more viscerally than ever. The fire that blazed in that worship for me was every ounce the fire Jesus intended in a processional of the Gospel into the world. And for once I knew what it was like to show up to worship with a lamp entirely full. The parable doesn't demand I not share oil, it demands I share the most blazing of lights for the longest period of time. I'm being asked to bring my full self to God's table. The sin was ever asking me to bring only half.
What is the point of a blazing processional that is half on fire? What is the point of an election with not all the votes counted? What is the point of a table where all are gathered if not all are welcome? What is the point of neighborhood safety if not all are safe? At some point, sacrificing our oil negates the whole point of the party.
In the parable, the foolish bridesmaids return to a groom who does not recognize them as participants of the party. They have missed the point about what participating means. Participation in God's Kin-dom never required some of us to be only half on fire for the Gospel.
May every vote be counted. May all be welcome to the table. May everyone bring their full selves with every ounce of oil. And may the processional of Jesus' Love and Grace blaze through all the shadows.
by Angel Figueroa
There are times when I look at the lectionary texts for the coming week and groan because I don’t see any possible way to make them apply to the modern day. And then there are the times when I look at the text and groan because I have no idea how to narrow it down because it applies to ALL THE THINGS. Today is one of the latter times. We are in a moment of crisis like few in the history of our country. We are in the midst of of a global pandemic that has taken hundreds of thousands of lives. The country is embroiled in a moment of racial reckoning; Philadelphia has erupted in protest after another black man, Walter Wallace, Jr., was murdered by police Monday night. And, of course, there is the elephant (and donkey) in the room, a contentious and polarized presidential election. It seems like almost too much to take in all at once.
I find it fitting that the first reading assigned is from the Revelation to John, perhaps the book of the Bible most prevalent in the popular imagination. Part of the reason it is so prevalent in the popular consciousness is because of how terrifying much of the imagery is. Yet it is passages like this one that are the heart of what was revealed to John at Patmos. The title of the book suggest one of it’s primary purposes. It reveals, or unveils, the true state of the world. To use the words of Martin Luther, it calls the thing what it is. It lays bare the demonic forces that rule over this word, using powerful visceral language to do so. The Book of Revelations is horrifying, but only because the depths of the evil it points to is just as horrifying.
While the Revelation to John is full of great horrors, that is not all there is to it. In the midst of all the horror and despair it shows, there is still hope. Death and destruction rule the world, but there is a savior who will be victorious over it. And that savior has a name, and it’s not Joe Biden, or Donald Trump or *insert your favorite politician here.* Only Jesus has the power to bring about the reign of God; a reign of justice, equity and the peace that passes all understanding. Only Jesus has the power to slay the beast that lays siege to this world. And only Jesus is the water of life, the source of life everlasting.
While we humans are not the source of life and salvation, that doesn’t mean we should sit on our asses and do nothing. Jesus might be the only one with the power to defeat evil and death, but we have our part as well. When we came to the font, when we were washed by word joined with water, we were washed with the water of life and we became part of the very Body of Christ. We are given the gift of life everlasting, but we also become part of Christ’s mission to bring about the end of death and chaos.
As Christians, especially in the American context, we do this several ways. We believe in a democratic society. We are members of a society where effectively, all citizens are rulers of the nation, and we rule most directly through our control of government officials. So we must examine our consciousness and vote for the person we believe will most likely advance Christ’s mission of justice and equity. And once we do that, we need to work to remind them of the reason we voted for them and to keep them accountable. But that is not our only work. We are also called to proclaim the reign of God, and fight back against the deceitful voice of the Devil.
For that is exactly what Jesus was doing at the Sermon on the Mount. The Beatitudes are often one of the most familiar parts of the Gospel for those who are not Christian. But within and outside of the Church they are all too often misused. They are treated as demands instead of the affirmations that they truly are. In a world where the poor, humble, and meek were considered cursed and abandoned by God for not being successful by the standards of the Empire, declaring them to instead be blessed was a radical act.
In the world we live in, declaring Black Lives Matter while society treats them as disposable is a radical act. In the world we live in, fighting for nobody to be hungry while society declares only the worthy deserve to eat is a radical act. In the world we live in, claiming our non-Christian neighbors as beloved cousins and fellow children of God is a radical act. In the world we live in, lifting up our female, trans, and non-binary siblings as leaders while society says that only cis-gender men’s voices matter is a radical act. In the world we live in, love and equity are radical values. But since we have been washed with the living water, it is because they are radical and against the ways of this world that they are our values.
By Rev. Allison Johnson
Leviticus 19:1-2, 15-18
Love your neighbor as yourself. I wonder how often we’ve heard these words, spoken them ourselves, and lifted them up as what it means to be a Christian. While the importance of these words is obvious, as Jesus lifts up this commandment as one of the greatest, it seems we’ve watered down this phrase into a call to simply be nice. Don’t rock the boat. Smile at people. Avoid conflict. Turn the other cheek. Let things go.
Using Leviticus as a lens through which we interpret this commandment, we see that loving your neighbor is more than being nice – it is a call to holiness. What do you think of when you hear the word holy? What do the people in our ministry contexts think of? Sexual purity? Proper attire at church? Refraining from swearing?
Leviticus 19 can be split into three sections, and the section we find ourselves in emphasizes obligations to other people. The call to holiness is shaped by obligation to others. Perhaps this is not where our mind drifts when we think about holiness. For Israel, to be holy as God is holy is the call to be distinct from the Canaanite culture. To be God’s holy people meant to actively navigate the boundaries between the culture and being in covenant with God. To be holy is a call for Israel to live out their end of the covenant and be a blessing in the world.
The small list of commands in Leviticus helps us begin to navigate how the people of God are called to be set apart from the culture, whether it be Canaanite culture or the American culture in which many of us find ourselves. Judge with justice. Don’t show partiality. Don’t gossip. Don’t profit off of the blood of your neighbor. Don’t hate anyone, and if you do, confront them about it. Don’t seek vengeance. Does this seem nice to you? Does this seem like holiness?
These commands lift up the well-being of others; they are a call to genuinely value the humanity of the people with whom we are in community. Loving one’s neighbor in this way is love that is active; love that is a verb and not a feeling. Loving your neighbor through the lens of God’s holiness is about being set apart for the sake of others. It is not about personal gain, individualism, selfishness, or violence that we see being valued in our current culture.
These commands – the call to be holy – move us to confront evil within ourselves and the evil in our midst that harms our neighbor.
Do not profit off of the blood of your neighbor. What do you classify as the blood of others? What if it’s taking someone’s life? But maybe it’s more than that. What if it’s hurting them with your actions? What if it’s hurting them with your words? What if it’s hurting them with your silence? What if it’s hurting them by not standing up for them when they need you? What if it’s that you won’t take a risk on behalf of another? What if it is the harming of others through our prejudices? What if profiting off of the blood of our neighbor meant seeing them as competition rather than a beloved part of God’s family? So, what if this command is a call for us to avoid harming others, but also a call to actively live in such a way that benefits them?
We are not called to be holy because God needs us to, we are called to be holy for the sake of the world, that others might experience God’s blessing through us. That others may experience abundant life, too. That is why God gives us the law, so that we can dwell together the way God had intended.
We are indeed set apart; not because we are better than others, but because God desires wholeness for the world. And God is silly enough to think that we could help bring that wholeness to others, that we could be a part of others experiencing God’s justice, mercy, liberation, grace, and radical love.
So, echoing the words of Martin Luther on this Reformation weekend, “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.”
How are we being called to be set apart – different – in order that others may experience wholeness? How may this command to holiness be set apart from values we see in our culture? How can we be bound to our neighbor? Remember, people of God, in the words of Martin Luther, “God does not need your good works. But your neighbor does.”
Rev. Carla Christopher
Oh, how often do we feel the sharp sting of sarcasm when a sly tongue lashes out at us? Whether it is a family member with a backhanded compliment or a co-worker with a sarcastic aside, there are many names to describe this type of gilded assault. “Microaggression” or “passive aggression” are good examples but they both contain a very telling word; aggression. Even when we coat it with padding to make it more intellectual, more palatable, less uncomfortably confrontational, to be deliberately unkind or flat out mean is an attack. To say something meant to entrap or intended to highlight another’s area of struggle or challenge is an attack. In our reading we see that attacking another is not the way of Jesus, even while holding each other lovingly accountable and maintaining self-care based protective boundaries is.
In today’s passage Jesus is verbally attacked in a charged conversation that was likely harmless in appearance to an uninformed passerby. Pharisees, ("in a sense, 'blue collar' Jews, specializing in the application of priestly laws to non-priests and opposed incorporating Hellenism into Jewish lives") are joined by Herodians (“a party that favored the dynasty of Herod and stood for the Roman connection who cared little or nothing for religion and normally were bitterly opposed by the Pharisees,” according to Bible-Studys.org) to put Jesus in a bit of a trap. Jesus is asked about the payment of taxes knowing that if he decrees that money should be given to God over government he will be called treasonous and if he calls for resources to go to government over the needs of the people he will be denounced by the priests. The dialogue is rife with sarcasm and meant to set up an impossible situation that will make Jesus look a fool. Ironically, when we hear about microaggressions today it is usually the most marginalized among us who are targeted; sly remarks aimed at those speaking English as a second language, or a poor woman holding up a grocery line to pay for necessities with a food stamp card. If you break the new golden rule of reading the comments below virtually any marginalized-person centering article posted on social media, you see contemporary examples. Couched as "devil's advocate" or "intellectual" responses, there is only the thinnest veil disguising these deliberately provocative and hostility inspired remarks for what they are - traps.
Instead of playing into the aggression or repaying injury with insult, Jesus cleverly avoids this trap by saying that both God and the emperor should be given what belongs to them. I like to think it’s because Jesus has the same high school counselor as I did, or at least a mentor who gave similar sage advice. Ms. Fran took me aside when I was tempted to react with anger, respond with insult, or rise up in aggression, and she told me about ‘results oriented thinking’. “You are here for a reason child, don’t let anyone distract you. You have bigger fish to fry.”
As I type this, we are heading into certainly the most controversial election season of most of our lifetimes. We are struggling as a country with the most faithful response to a pandemic. I get it. As a pastor and a justice advocate, I’m in the thick of it too. The temptation may be to give in to anger or frustration. It may be to react with disengaging and shutting down. As hard as it is my siblings in Christ, I am asking you to remain focused in this season. We have important work to do my friends. Alongside Jesus, we are called to talk to those willing to listen, to sidestep those who are not, and above all to remain focused on finding creative and dynamic ways to teach and serve the most vulnerable among us. When we refuse the distractions of those trying to get us off our game, as the Pharisees were trying to do to Jesus here, they often ‘leave us and go away.’ God is infinite. We are not. Pick your battles. Fight them well.
We would like to note that, as Christians and as preachers, we must always be careful to not fall into anti-Semitism when speaking about the Pharisees. In fact, we must work to counter the generations of messaging we have received that the Pharisees were evil. They were, really, a lot like us: faith leaders trying to get people to follow God, as they understood God wanted them to, in a time that was quite dangerous for them. This reading is one of many that can land in the territory of, "Pharisees are terrible and also Jews are terrible." At this time of rising anti-Semitism, it is imperative we unlearn a lot of what we have learned about Pharisees and teach our people new ways of thinking about them, the people of Israel, and Jewish people in general. To learn more, head to this fantastic resource from Showing Up for Racial Justice.
by Rev. Elizabeth Rawlings
Looking over the readings for this week, all I see are social justice angles one could take. How many golden calves could we confront when speaking on the lesson from Exodus? Whiteness? Nationalism? Patriotism? Using the reading from Isaiah this week, we can speak of a God who is refuge to the poor. Philippians gives us the opportunity to lift up women in ministry and also talk about the lack of opportunity for BIPOC and trans women in persistently white denominations -- or we could talk about the values of truth, honor, and justice. The words of the gospel this week give us space to talk about who is invited to the feast and what it means to respond to that invitation. In light of the many options the readings provide this week, I want to take this opportunity write to you, dear preacher, words of encouragement and challenge.
I extol you, beloved sibling in Christ, to be brave and bold in your proclamation of the Word this week and every week after. We are in crisis in America. We are, in fact, living in a failed state. Not failing, failed. We are on the eve of an election that could be the final step in our national descent into fascism and totalitarianism. I realize many people believe I am being hyperbolic when I speak this way, or that I am wildly off base. If that is where you are, I encourage you to read this, or this, or watch this - pieces by people who have lived through the rise of totalitarianism or a failed state, or to listen to those who have long experienced oppression at the hand of our systems (or listen to the podcast It Could Happen Here). Those of us who do not experience oppression at the hands of our own nation seem to have a faith in the eternal possibility of the United States and in our systems, a faith that often rivals our faith in the eternal goodness of God. This faith is blind and, frankly, undeserved.
It is certainly tempting to not speak into this moment, or to speak into it with such fear of offending our people that we say nothing at all. After all, we are incredibly stressed out and adding the stresses of angry parishioners or the possibility of losing our jobs to the stresses of living through a pandemic in a failed state in which we are on, like, step 15 of the march towards fascism, feels like too much.
But what if I were to tell you that the words you preach each Sunday can either build supports for the police state, for white supremacy, for anti-trans violence, for fascism itself OR can help to tear down those walls to help build a new future? What if I told you that the sermon you preach this week, and the weeks thereafter, are building the future for future generations? We are, after all, co-creators with God in this world. Ever since Adam named the animals in the Garden of Eden we have been participants in the world, creating and destroying. What world do you want to create? You, dear friends, are builders of the future. It is a heavy responsibility, and in these times it is frightening, but it is one we must bear, in spite of consequences.
We have created a golden calf in persistently white churches that appears benign but is, in fact, deadly. We have taken nice words and pretty liturgy and fluffy music and passive aggressiveness, melted it down, and made an idol of comfort. For generations now, white people have come to church to hear that we are good people, to be told we are loved and covered in God’s grace, and have nothing about how we live challenged. Those of us in confessional traditions confess each week by rote memorization, are forgiven, but are rarely actually called to honest repentance and atonement. I believe that, out of all the things killing Euroentric Christianity in the United States, this might be the greatest problem. This idol of comfort keeps us from being able to confront the giant problems of racism, patriarchy, xenophobia, violence, greed, and hate that fester in our nation and in the hearts of our people (and in our own hearts). As preachers, our desire for comfort renders us frozen when faced with the task of challenging our people.
We have models for challenging people. The people following Moses were uncomfortable. The prophets made people uncomfortable. Jesus made those in power uncomfortable. Paul pissed people off (to be fair, he frequently pisses me off). If we want to comfort our people, which is something people *also* need in these times, we have the comfort of the knowledge that God is always with us. God never left their people in the wilderness. God continued speaking to the prophets even when they tried to run from her. God’s love for us is so great that God decided to experience this terribly uncomfortable human life, to speak up for those on the margins, and to be tortured and die because of their great love for us. That is the comfort. The comfort is not that we are “good people” or that we are doing everything right. The comfort is not that God never calls us to change; it is that God is with us in the change, standing by our sides as we confront our own greed and racism and bullshit. God is with us as we look at our trauma and holds us as we grieve and begin to heal. That’s the comfort. And that is the comfort we can preach to our people.
Some people will not want to hear that. Some people, beloved, will be unable to hear our words. They will reject us. We may be fired. We may make ourselves unemployable. I have many friends who already face great difficulty in getting a call simply because of the color of their skin, their sexual orientation, or their gender. I have many more who have difficulty in getting a call because they have spoken up too loudly and too frequently on the side of justice. And it sucks.
But we are in a place where we have the opportunity to dream a different world for our grandchildren, and in a position to use our words to bring a world that more closely reflects the Kingdom of God into being.
Historically, the white church has done a shit job of speaking up at times like these. We prefer the idol of comfort to the things God actually asks of us. We have a chance to do differently this time. Let us not fuck this up. Let’s burn that calf of comfort in effigy and call our people to the font to remember the promises made at their baptism, the covenant between us and God, and create something beautiful together.
By Rev. Michelle Magee
Commentary on Matthew 21:33-46
Where does authority come from and how does it work? This Sunday’s Gospel lesson is the second of three parables Jesus tells in response to the question from the chief priests and the elders: “By what authority are you doing these things?” (Matthew 21: 23). The deeper I go into this parable the more I sense Jesus flipping all of our notions about authority upside down.
As I read this question from the chief priest and elders I imagine their tone and guess that their question comes from place of: “WE are the leaders of the Jewish people. WE are the ones who will teach about God and religion, thankyouverymuch.” They ask the question not because they want a sincere answer, but because they want to establish their authority and emphasize that things should be done by the rules, and top-down.
Jesus has already given a (non) answer and told one parable in response to their question, but then seems to step it up a notch. In verse 33 Jesus begins with the very familiar imagery from Isaiah of the vineyard which is understood to represent the society of God’s people (aka Israel). In Isaiah the leaders (political and religious as they were very much intertwined) are taken to task for not caring for the people. Now Jesus speaks to the chief priests and elders, he asks them, “Who is responsible for caring for the people while the owner of the vineyard is away?” D. Mark Davis suggests that the religious leaders talking to Jesus assume the evil tenants in his parable are the Roman occupiers, hence their answer in verse 41: “God will put those wretches to a miserable death!” But by the end of the parable, Jesus has flipped their own violent judgment upon them (v. 44).
I see this as Matthew’s version of a “he who has no sin, throw the first stone” ethic. Jesus raises the question: If you--chief priests and elders-- have the authority of the One True God, why aren’t you using it to care for the people? If you are going to have a god who puts evil tenants to death, then you are those evil tenants. Judge yourself by the same code with which you judge others. Your pretty words about God and your actions don’t line up.
When the chief priests and elders are called out, rather than admitting that Jesus does have the authority of the One True God, they see that he is exposing their hypocrisy and want to arrest him (v 45-46).
So it goes every time those with power resist accountability.
Jesus tells them that their power of caring for the people and instructing in the Way of the One True God--in other words, their authority-- is taken, according to Jesus, from them and given to the new followers of the Way who are producing fruit. Those with true authority are the ones living with deeds that match their words (v 43).
There is always a temptation to make our god in our own image, to assume a god who wants revenge like we want revenge, who would do what we do, right or wrong, while only looking at us with favor. The gospel frees us to repent of that hypocrisy and examine our words (as individuals, movements or institutions) alongside the deeds and outcomes of those words. The gospel frees us to place authority not in the by –the- rules, top-down hierarchy, but to put authority in those who bear fruit of the kingdom.
Sermon illustrations in the negative abound: think perhaps of the sins of your own church institution, the democracy or lack thereof in our nation, who is indicted for which crimes, billionaire CEOs with idealistic sounding mission statements but whose employees live below the poverty line.
But what about the positive illustration: Who produces the fruits of the kingdom today? Which people are living lives of truly caring for others? Stories come to mind of immigrant communities who look out for one another, of homeless people helping each other find the resources they need. The less power people have, it seems, the more accountability they have to living lives of care. Perhaps there-- in communities rather than individuals, in those with the least power in worldly terms rather than the most--is where we ought to locate authority as followers of Jesus.
by Joseph Castañeda Carrera
Commentary on Matthew 21:23-32
To begin with the Matthew text we must look at how authority and Grace function at the juncture between oppressed and privileged peoples in our own neighborhoods today.
God’s Grace will always be with us. In fact, it cannot be separated from us.
Grace will always be most powerful, forever redeeming, upon each of us before we need it.
by Rev. Collette Broady-Grund
Commentary on Matthew 20:1-16
Does this story make you mad? From paying equal wages for unequal work, to the whole system of day labor that benefits only the landowner in the end, a lot of things in this parable are unfair, unjust even. If this story doesn’t anger you, you might not be getting the point.
Jesus begins a tale of a landowner and a vineyard, which hearkens back to many references from the Hebrew scriptures, as well as other gospel parables, casting Israel as the vineyard. God is often the landowner, or at least the tender of the vines. But, as usual, Jesus is going to turn these normal tropes on their head.
The story begins to unfold just as we’d expect: the landowner goes out first thing in the morning to hire day laborers to pick grapes and tend vines. In some places where produce is grown in our country, this is a familiar scene, though instead of gathering in the town marketplace, the day laborers show up at first light in the Wal-Mart parking lot and wait for the landowners and managers to pick them for work. A wage is agreed between them, and off they go.
Here’s where the story starts to get interesting. The landowner goes out again a few hours later, sees that there are laborers waiting for work, and hires them too, with a vague promise to pay them whatever is right. Maybe it’s the height of harvest and he can’t get those grapes off the vine fast enough, or maybe a number of his regular workers are quarantined at home with COVID-19.
But he comes out AGAIN, at noon, again at three in the afternoon, and does the same thing. And when he comes the final time, at the 11th hour, it’s clear the landowner doesn’t need this labor, yet he hires them anyway.
When he asks these 11th hour folks why they’re standing around all day, they say, “Because no one has hired us.” Though some readers will be quick to assume that these laborers slept in, or are just plain lazy, a look at our own agricultural day labor system suggests a different answer.
For day laborers picking food in the U.S., the ones still waiting in the Wal-Mart parking lot at the end of the day are not the ones that showed up late. Rather, they are the elderly ones and women who look like they can’t work as hard. They are the workers lacking steel-toed boots and PPE, because they can’t afford or access it. They are the people who speak almost no English, which will make the supervisor’s job harder. So, when the 11th hour hires say “Because no one hired us,” what they probably mean is, “because no one wanted us.” So far, this kin-dom of heaven doesn’t look much different from the United States of America.
But then, payday comes. The laborers line up as they’ve been instructed, starting with the last hired. And surprise! These 11th hour laborers get the same pay as those who worked 12, and 9, and 6 and 3 hours. No matter the work, the wages are the same. It appears this landowner is in favor of a universal basic income.
Or maybe this is a performative act of justice, meant to make him look good to his fellow landowners, but doing little to disrupt the unjust system of day labor, on which empires, both then and now, are built. As parables often do, this story raises many more questions than it answers.
Is God really like this landowner? In some ways, yes: equal love, equal grace, equal reward for all who labor in God’s kin-dom. The part of me that still thinks like a born and bred white American, a descendent of the Puritans who invented the Protestant work ethic, is irritated by this equality. I’m Jonah sitting under my dying vine, lamenting that God is merciful to THOSE NINEVITES too. That’s the part of me that needs to be reminded that the economy of God works differently than the economy of America.
That same part of me also needs to be reminded that God should not be easily equated with the landowner, who seems only concerned with this one day and its wages, but does nothing to dismantle a system that makes the rich richer and keeps the poor powerless. As we see image after image of laborers in the vineyards of California, working despite smoke-filled skies and a global pandemic, we must proclaim that God wants more than a generous day’s wage for these beloved people. It is not God’s justice that endangers the lives of those deemed essential workers so that the rest of us can stay safely home and order the produce they’ve picked for home delivery at reasonable prices.
Jesus came not only to be sure that those who had been left out had equal access to God’s power and healing, but also to put an end to the whole system of tit-for-tat, sacrifice for sin, and rigid social hierarchy. Like this parable, Jesus’ story is about coming out into our midst, calling not just the hardest workers, but those who are left out and left behind to join in the work of the kin-dom. Jesus’ story is about coming to the world again and again and again, not until everyone is laboring under a wealthy landowner, but until all are laboring together as equals in the kin-dom.
by Rev. Priscilla Paris-Austin
“How many times should I forgive someone who does something wrong to me? Is seven times enough?” Matthew 18:21b
Grace and peace be with you, fellow Disruptors,
When I write for Disrupt Worship, one of my objectives is to offer seeds for preachers to disrupt old patterns of thinking for their congregation. But today, I want to disrupt you, preachers. I want to disrupt how you source your exegesis. And as someone who frequently names capitalism and nationalism as sinful, I am also going to disrupt myself.
So I begin today’s reflection on the text (Matthew 18:21-35) with a quote from the United States Constitution and another from Forbes Magazine. Yes, Disruptors, I want us to look at this week’s Gospel through the lenses of the U.S. Constitution and capitalism:
No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws. US Constitution 14th Amendment Section 1
On any given day, there are 450,000 people waiting for trial in jail, purely because they couldn’t afford to pay their bail...
...the United States and the Philippines are the only countries in the world that have a cash bail system. Forbes, June 2020
Jesus is responding to a question from Peter about how often we should forgive those who offend us. It’s curious to me that while Peter asks about a personal offense, Jesus responds with a story/parable about economic debt. I believe that Peter is checking in with Jesus to see when he can turn someone over to the authorities. How much offense must we tolerate and forgive, Jesus? And Jesus’ reply is: here’s how your systems could work, and do work.
We live in a society where we herald the ideas of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, while 450,000 people sit in jail for an inability to post bail. They can’t pay their debts and thus are sitting in debtors prison, a concept which we deem to be unconstitutional. Yet, we support the system by not questioning it. In Jesus’ story, the king calls his subjects to account for what is owed to him. He takes pity on one privileged member of his realm, an official. That official is granted immunity: full forgiveness of his debt. But that same official, understanding how the system works, demands payment from a more marginalized member of the community and has the poor man, “thrown in jail until he could pay what he owed.”
How does one pay a debt from prison? This action is clearly a passing of that debt from the person to their family. Does it align with Jesus' message of forgiveness? Does that align with our constitutional values?
Kalief Browder, was 16 years old when he was arrested for stealing a backpack; charges which were eventually dropped as the case against him continually fell apart. Unable to post bail, he spent 3 years in prison on Rikers Island, much of it in solitary confinement. Kalief paid the debt with his sanity and, eventually, his life. Where was forgiveness for Kalief? In what ways is the official in Jesus’ parable like the prosecutors of our day? Consider the cases of Kalief Browder, Sandra Bland, and too many more to name. Who are we in Jesus’ story? And most importantly, who is Jesus?
Through the lens of our unjust bail bond system, it is clear to me that Jesus is neither the unforgiving official nor the forgiving king who takes back his forgiveness. Both characters expose our sinful bondage as a community to debt as a communal value. Neither is particularly interested in deconstructing that system. Instead, I see Jesus in the person of the one who is beaten and jailed. Christ took on our debts and was punished severely for them while the community looked on. Every day, some 450,000 people in the image of Jesus, sit in prison, waiting for family to pay their debts. As you ponder what to preach this week, Dsiprutor, I hope that you will look to the other officials, the ones who could not stand by and be silent.
Resources about disrupting the Cash Bail Bond System
Bail reform, which could save millions of unconvicted people from jail, explained, Vox October 2018
How Cash Bail Works, Brennan Center for Justice, 2019
Color of Change No Money Bail Campaign
Netflix documentary on Kalief Browder
by Carla Christopher Wilson
This week's lectionary text takes us back to the very beginning of Jesus' ministry. Jesus has finished giving his initial instructions to the twelve disciples he called and has begun a traveling and teaching ministry. Who is this new human source of wisdom and theology shaping knowledge anyway? At this point Jesus is still a minimally known and minimally resourced man of dubious origin. He is a rural tradesmen; brilliant but without prestigious bloodline or extensive economic privilege. He begins by speaking about an even more marginalized "outsider" character, his herald and cousin, John the Baptist.
This is the Revised Common Lectionary sermonizing archive.