Easter 2C: Faith’s Shadow

doubting-thomas

FIRST LESSON: Acts 5: 27-32

To read the Acts passage

During the Season of Eastertide, our first readings are not from the Old Testament but rather the Book of Acts—the beginnings of the believers’ story after the Resurrection. All of a sudden this seemingly bumbling and clueless band of disciples that had followed Jesus around all through the Gospels suddenly seems to “get it”. But remember, too, that earlier in Acts (our Pentecost story), the Holy Spirit had come upon them. They were not alone but were empowered by faith in the Resurrected Christ. They were, in effect, becoming the church. Walter Brueggemann writes that “in the Book of Acts the church is a restless, transformative agent at work for emancipation and well-being in the world.” (April 9, 2007, available at http://theolog.org/2007/04/brueggemann-sermon-starter.html.)

Now they feel compelled to speak the Truth as they see it, even when the act of speaking the Truth is a dangerous one. They speak of Jesus as one in the same as the One and only Lord, God Almighty. And obeying and speaking this truth is above all human authority. Peter and the apostles understood that with the Resurrection of Christ, they were to look to new leadership. They were to follow Christ, rather than the political and religious leaders that were in place in the society.

Now it is important to not begin to fall into this account as one religion against another. This is NOT the Christians vs. the Jews the way some of our Christian brothers and sisters may try to make it. In fact, “Christianity”, per se is essentially a movement within the established faith. Peter is speaking here with the “authority of our ancestors”. He is speaking from the tradition of his people—his Jewish people. Think of it more as a “family feud” or a difference in belief. The words “to Israel” are important. This is not the beginnings of a religious war between two opposing faiths. Here, both sides were convinced that their truth was THE Truth. But it is not unlike our own setting with our own internal struggles between conservative and progressive, traditional and contemporary, right and left, or whatever designations you care to use to fill in the blanks.

Here, Peter was a witness. We know the end of the story. He and others are martyred for their belief. But the important part is that Peter was a witness, doing what all of us are called to do as followers of Christ.

I think it’s important to note, though, that being a “witness” does not call one to be mean-spirited or to wound others who do not think the same way in the process. Peter and the disciples still viewed themselves as part of those to whom they were speaking. They were not pulling away; they were not dismissing them as “wrong” or “evil” or anything else. They were trying to open the conversation of faith. But, of course, they were having to do it with authorities that had the upper hand.

There are those that will see the Scripture as a call to “war” between the so-called “secular humanists” and (I would say) so-called “people of faith”. J. Michael Krech says this in response to that:

 

[Some people] will see as heir to Peter’s boldness the public high school valedictorian who inserts a prayer into her speech at graduation, despite being warned by the school principal not to do so, thus obeying God rather than human authority. Other Christians will see as closer to the spirit of Peter the protesters whose placards and chants of “No War for Oil” break up a congressional committee hearing on Department of Defense appropriations.

In nations where governments are fairly chosen by the will of the people and orderly processes exist to hear grievances, it may be appropriate that the protesters who interrupt a congressional committee’s proceedings be removed from the room. In nations where the constitution and national heritage encourage mutual respect for people of various faiths and those who hold no religious faith at all, the school principal is correct. Praying your prayer to a captive audience at a public school graduation is not an act of courage but of bad manners…

When [one] speaks with the boldness of Peter and the other apostles, it does, at least over time, encourage hearers to take principled if unpopular stands in the workplace and helps lead us all to be seekers of truth and agents of reconciliation. (J. Michael Krech, in Feasting on the Word, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. “Second Sunday of Easter”, p. 381, 383.)

 

  • What is your response to this passage?
  • Our new United Methodist vows of membership themselves call us to vow our “prayers, our presence, our gifts, our service, and our witness”. What does that mean to you to be called as a witness?
  • Why is that so difficult in today’s society?
  • What does it mean that we are called to be “transformative agents”, as Brueggemann said?

 

 

NEW TESTAMENT: Revelation 1: 4-8

To read the passage from Revelation

This passage is the beginning of what was essentially a formal letter for that time and two-thirds of our passage for this week is essentially the salutation for that letter. The writer named John begins by wishing his readers grace and peace from God. He describes God as “the One who is”, sort of like the Old Testament tradition of God interpreting God’s own name as “I am who I am.” The “one who is and who is to come” presents the timelessness, the eternity, of God. It also speaks to that “already and not yet” characteristic of the Kingdom of God.

The number “seven” (used here for the cities and for the spirits) is intended to mean perfect or complete. The seven churches are named later in this collection known as the Book of Revelation, but it is possible that at the beginning, he was representing all the churches of western Asia minor (modern-day Turkey). Perhaps the writer is trying to depict a God that is beyond what we can imagine, beyond the limits of one human. And once again, we have the depiction of God as the ruler over all, one in our midst, always with us, guiding us. So, in the beginning—God, in the end—God, and throughout it all—God. God’s presence and power transcend all human notions of time. And Jesus Christ, the third figure named in the greeting, is also presented with three corresponding titles—the “faithful witness” (in his ministry, death and resurrection), the “firstborn of the dead” (vanquishing death), and “the ruler of the kings of the earth” (a new sovereignty on the earth.)

Remember that this Revelation was written at least a generation or two after Jesus’ death and Resurrection. The Christian faith was already solidified. And once again, the passage draws to the witness of that faith. There was a definite disparity for those early believers between being “Easter people” and living in the realities of what was often a harsh and cruel world. They were being persecuted and they needed a way to make sense of their faith. Revelation was written to encourage those Christians who were struggling to have faith in light of everything around them when evil seemed to be the only thing at work in the world. It was intended to bring a vision of hope to those whose only way to be “safe in their faith” was to abandon it altogether.

And for those of us who have left the beauty and glory that was Easter morning, with the more than full sanctuary, the beautiful flower arrangements, the “Hallelujah Chorus”, and the high-church celebration, now what? We are not persecuted for our faith, but it is indeed hard. It is hard to stay faithful when there are so many things that tug at your life. And, how in the world do we follow that exhibition on Easter morning? How do we top that? What next?

 

To understand Revelation for our day, we have to understand the nature of hope. For Christians hope is not a wish. It is not a tooth under a pillow, or fingers crossed or just one more Publisher’s Clearinghouse Sweepstakes try. Hope for a Christian is an assurance, a firm and binding promise. It is a sure thing. Hope is not a feeling. It is a fact. It is a fact rooted in the reality of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ and assured by the amazing, steadfast, unshakable love of God for God’s people. God will not be shaken. Hope is independent of circumstances and it will never be conquered by evil. Even if hurt seems to be winning, the battle for God has already been won.

Several years ago when I was a pastor in the Denver Colorado area, a colleague of mine told me a story of a friend of hers who was traveling home to Denver on a Sunday afternoon from a conference north along the front range of the Rocky Mountains in Fort Collins. The conference had been a good one. The man and the woman were driving home full of what they had learned and talking about how they might use their new learning in their work situations. As they rounded a curve in the road they came upon a serious motorcycle accident. The motorcycle seemed to catch on something and flip into the air. The driver, without a helmet, was thrown fifty yards or so, and the bike landed not far away.

The two were the first to arrive. The man was driving and pulled off the road just north of the accident. Before he shut off the ignition the woman was out of the car and running to the side of the accident victim. The man stopped another car and sent the occupants for help while he began to try to direct traffic. At one point in the chaos he glanced at the woman. She was crouched next to the unconscious young man, stroking his hair and talking to him.

When the ambulance arrived and the young man was whisked away, the man and the woman got back into their car in silence. There was blood on the woman’s hands and around the hem of her skirt.

After a moment, the man said, “I saw you talking to that young man. He was obviously unconscious. He may even have been dead. What could you possibly have been saying to him?”

“I just told him over and over,” she replied, “I just told him, the worst is over. The healing has already begun.”

To those long ago hurting ones to whom John wrote, to those long ago ones whose lives were marked by pain and fear, by weakness and oppression of injustice and death, whose lives were marked by the terror of the now and haunted by the past and uncertain of the future, to those ones and to us, to you, God through the words of Revelation offers us a vision of a brand new life; a life lived in a brand new order in a brand new way. Maybe the images in Revelation are frightening and confusing to you, serpents and lakes of fire, but what is that to us? What God has to say in this letter is that no matter what comes against you in this life; no matter if all of the power of pain and chaos of the universe seems to overtake you all at once; no matter if you can not control one single thing or fix one single thing in your life, the worst is over, the healing has already begun. The lamb is on the throne. Come Lord Jesus, come. (From “Saltwater Apocalypse”, a sermon by Rev. Eugenia Gamble, November 16, 1997, available at http://day1.org/821-saltwater_apocalypse.)

 

  • What meaning does this passage hold for you?
  • What does this passage say about the calling to “witness”?
  • What does it mean to embody Christ, to embody Easter, to become “Easter people”?
  • In what ways do we understand hope?

 

 

GOSPEL: John 20: 19-31

To read the Gospel passage

You have to wonder what the disciples were thinking locked behind the door of their house. Were they afraid that they would be next? Were they disillusioned that things had turned out that way? Were they feeling remorse or guilt or shame at the parts that they had played (or not played, as the case may be) in the Passion Play? I suppose it’s possible that they were a little afraid of the rumors that Jesus HAD returned. After all, what would he say to THEM?

But that’s not what happened. Things were going to be OK. Jesus was back. The disciples rejoiced. Jesus breathed the Holy Spirit into them. They were sent. They became the community of Christ. And so I supposed they went off merrily praising God and being who they were called to be. This is a premise for discipleship. Jesus offered light and truth through his relationship with God. Now the disciples are called to offer light and truth through their relationship with Christ. All except Thomas. Poor Thomas. He wanted to see proof. Why couldn’t he just believe?

On one level, Jesus, with all the grace that Christ offers, gives Thomas exactly what Thomas so desperately needs—proof. Thomas missed his initial opportunity, but Jesus returns. I think we give Thomas a bad wrap—after all, for some reason, he missed what the others had seen. (It is interesting that he was apparently the only one who had ventured outside!) He just wanted the same opportunity—and Jesus gave that to him. He wanted to experience it. The point was that the Resurrection is not a fact to be believed, but an experience to be shared. And perhaps, part of that experience is doubt. Constructive doubt is what forms the questions in us and leads us to search and explore our own faith understanding. It is doubt that compels us to search for greater understanding of who God is and who we are as children of God.

Hans Kung is a Swiss-born theologian and writer. He says it like this: Doubt is the shadow cast by faith. One does not always notice it, but it is always there, though concealed. At any moment it may come into action. There is no mystery of the faith which is immune to doubt. Isn’t that a wonderful thought? Doubt is the shadow cast by faith. Faith in the resurrection does not exclude doubt, but takes doubt into itself. It is a matter of being part of this wonderful community of disciples not because God told us to but because our doubts bring us together. Examining our faith involves doubts, it requires us to learn the questions to ask. And it is in the face of doubt that our faith is born. God does not call us to a blind, unexamined faith, accepting all that we see and all that we hear as unquestionable truth; God instead calls us to an illumined doubt, through which we search and journey toward a greater understanding of God.

Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to belief. (Remember that ALL the disciples had seen Jesus. Thomas just wanted a more tangible showing. The only one in John’s Gospel that really saw nothing was the so-called “Beloved Disciple”, who ran to the tomb and saw nothing.) They have the relationship in Christ to which God calls us. They understand the Christian community—you come together and hold on for dear life as you search for a greater understanding of something that will always be a mystery. But what an incredible mystery it is! And we are given the grace to embrace it.

Frederick Buechner preached a sermon on this text entitled “The Seeing Heart”. In it, he reminds us of Thomas’ other name, the “Twin”. It was never really clear why he was called that, but Buechner says that “if you want to know who the other twin is, I can tell you. I am the other twin and, unless I miss my guess, so are you.” He goes on to say this:

 

I don’t know of any story in the Bible that is easier to imagine ourselves into than this one from John’s Gospel because it is a story about trying to believe in Jesus in a world that is as full of shadows and ambiguities and longings and doubts and glimmers of holiness as the room where the story takes place is and as you and I are inside ourselves…To see Jesus with the heart is to know that in the long run his kind of life is the only life worth living. To see him with the heart is not only to believe in him but little by little to become bearers to each other of his healing life until we become fully healed and whole and alive within ourselves. To see him with the heart is to take heart, to grow true hearts, brave hearts, at last. (“The Seeing Heart”, by Frederic Buechner, in Secrets in the Dark: A Life in Sermons)

 

 

  • What meaning does this passage hold for you?
  • What does doubt mean in your faith life?
  • What does community mean in your faith life?
  • What is your response to the notion that those who have not seen and yet have come to belief are the Blessed?
  • What, then, does it mean to have a “seeing heart”?

 

 

Some Quotes for Further Reflection:

 

I believe in the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth…and the resurrection of the body…as it was meant to be, the fragmented self made new; so that at the end of time all Creation will be One. Well, maybe I don’t exactly believe it, but I know it, and knowing is what matters…The strange turning of what seemed to be a horrendous No to a glorious Yes is always the message of Easter. (Madeleine L’Engle)

 

The beginning of wisdom is found in doubting; by doubting we come to the question, and by seeking we may come upon the truth. (Pierre Abelard, 12th century)

 

But the proclamation of Easter Day is that all is well…In the end, [God’s] will, not ours, is done. Love is the victor. Death is not the end. The end is life. His life and our lives through him, in him. Existence has greater depths of beauty, mystery, and benediction than the wildest visionary has ever dared to dream. Christ our Lord has risen! (Frederick Buechner, “The End is Life”, in Bread and Wine: Readings for Lent and Easter, 292)

 

 

Closing

Yours—we gladly attest—is the kingdom, the power, and the glory. Yours—we gladly assert—are the heavens and the earth. It is you who had made all that is, sun, moon, stars, rivers, forests, minerals, birds, beasts, fish—and us. We say, “in your image.” Yours the kingdom and the power and the glory—and then us.

 

You do not will us to be powerless either, so you endow us with the power to work, to rule, to govern. We reflect you in our working, in our ruling, in our governing. Ours is the chance for justice and/or injustice, for mercy and/or rigor, for peace and/or war. We grow accustomed to our power, sometimes absolutizing, and then we are interrupted by the doxology on which we have bet everything:

 

Yours is the kingdom, the power, and the glory. And we are glad. Amen. (“On Creation”, by Walter Brueggeman, in Prayers for a Privileged People, p. 165)

Proper 21A: Is the Lord Among Us or Not?

Moses Striking the Rock, Nicolas Poussin, Shipley Art Gallery
Moses Striking the Rock, Nicolas Poussin, Shipley Art Gallery

OLD TESTAMENT: Exodus 17: 1-7

http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=278312320

Israel’s life in the wilderness, even after liberation, is precarious at best. They proceed as the Lord commanded, but there is no water. They are missing the most elemental resources for life. So they begin to complain against Moses, questioning his leadership and his effectiveness. Moses, of course, is blameless. And he reprimands Israel for not only blaming him, but also for testing God. God’s answer does not address whether or not Moses is a good leader, but addresses the problem of the people’s thirst.

Now this is not the first time that the Israelites have been thirsty. In Chapter 15, we are told that they had been in the wilderness for three days and found only water that was undrinkable. Upon complaining, they were provided with a piece of wood that, when placed in the water, made the water sweet and palatable. Then in Chapter 16, we are told the story of God providing the manna, bread from heaven, in response to the people’s fears that they would starve to death. Here, they complain again. They are once again ridden with doubts—doubts about Moses as a leader, doubts about God, and even, it seems, doubts about themselves.

The point is clear—only God can give the resources for life, but God will do so through the work of Moses. The story is told as a witness of faith in order to place God’s fidelity and attentiveness right in the middle of the human drama as it moves from hunger to fullness and thirst to water. Walter Brueggemann points out that in most advertising that we know, the “commodity” (i.e., here, the water) becomes the substitute for God and the answer to life’s problems. But is this really meant to be that way? Or is it once again a calling to open our eyes and see the things that God has already provided in our lives? Truth be told, it is easy for us to sort of dismiss these complaining Israelites. (Good grief, we think, shut up already and look around you. Don’t you see what God has done?) And yet, lest we think we are immune to such thoughts, how many times do we “doubt” God when life does not go as planned? How many times do we fail to see what God has provided simply because we’re looking for something else?

It is interesting to note that we are never actually told whether or not water came out of the rock. We are told that Moses hit the rock, but what happened? We sort of read into it that water came gushing out, alleviating all fear of thirsting to death and all questions regarding the presence of God. But, really, is that the point? After all, Moses didn’t name the place “God Provides”; he called it Massah and Meribah, derived from the words for “test” and “quarrel”. By naming the place in this way, Moses reminds all future generations of the shortcomings of the people’s faith—and of our own. In essence, the narrator turns the problem back toward the people. It becomes a story of “unfaith”. What gets in the way was not God’s response or lack thereof but, rather, the Israelites lack of trust of God. This story of “unfaith” sort of critiques that view of religion that judges God by whatever outcome the asking community received. God does not reward and punish people based on whether or not they deserve it.

Now, in Israel’s defense, this was true thirst. In this passage, I don’t think “thirst” implies a metaphorical spiritual thirst. They needed water. This story is set in the wilderness. It’s hard for us to imagine true wilderness—no resources, no direction. And the desert must be the wilderness of all wildernesses. Without trees, there is no way to gauge where you are or how far you’ve come. Any shadow or dark spot is worthy of suspicion as something of which you must be aware. And rather than the path being hard to see or hard to tread, it is continually changed by the winds and sands. And yet, wilderness is over and over again the setting through which people find their faith.

Implicit in this story is an account of egos being tripped up—both for Moses and his followers. The Israelites thought they deserved something better. They thought that if they followed God and did what they were called to do, God would reward them. They didn’t have the faith to know that God was with them. They wanted it NOW. And for Moses, he fell into the trap of thinking that he was doing everything right, that the people should just shut up and listen to him. He forgot that he was instrument of God.

The image of thirsting is profoundly human. It is a deep human need. But when our needs become more important than the source from which we came, then fears and panic set in. Alexander Baillie says that “one needs to keep on thirsting because life grows and enlarges. It has no end; it goes on and on; it becomes more beautiful…One cannot be satisfied until one…ever thirsts for God.”

This is considered one of those “murmuring” stories of the Old Testament. We do the same thing. We let our fears and our images of what “should” be get in the way. We look for someone to blame—there, our leader, the one who brought us out into this god-forsaken place or this economic downturn or this global recession. It is easier to blame someone else. And the murmuring begins, getting louder and louder as more and more of us join in, as more and more networks join in the quintessential blame game, demanding answers, demanding action. It, in fact, becomes so loud and so obnoxious that we lose all awareness that the answer is right there in front of us. Maybe it takes a wilderness, a true thirst, to finally encounter God. And maybe it takes a wilderness, a true thirst, to finally see ourselves, to finally realize what this life of faith is all about. It’s not about whether or not God answers us; it’s not about whether or not we get what want or what we think we deserve; and it’s definitely not about who’s right or who’s wrong or who’s in charge. It’s about letting the question hang on our lips long enough for us to realize that the answer was there all along—that the God who brought us here, the God who liberated us and leads us through the wilderness, is not “out there” or “up there” or in a place to which we are going. We are not trying to “get” to God. God is here. We just have to open our eyes and our minds to what that means. “Is the Lord among us or not?” And God patiently waits for the answer.

 

  1. What is your response to this passage?
  2. What do you think this tells us about God in our own lives?
  3. What do you think Moses learned from this?
  4. Are there ways that we may fall into “testing” God?
  5. How often do we substitute commodities for God’s sustenance?
  6. How, then, do you answer the question, “Is God among us or not?”
  7. For what do you thirst? 

 

NEW TESTAMENT: Philippians 2: 1-13

To read the Lectionary Epistle passage, click here

This passage contains one of the most well-known texts of the New Testament. Beginning with verse 5, the Christological Hymn, the Kenosis Hymn, from the Greek word ekenosen, meaning “to empty” begins. At its most basic, it is telling the reader to “be like Jesus”. But, more than that, it is saying “let the very mindset of Christ be yours.” It presents this mindset as a way of emptying oneself in order to be filled with God, to be the image of God.

Paul is not dismissing this as a call to not worry about one’s salvation, but, rather, to work out one’s salvation with fear and trembling, because God is at work in you. Kristin Swanson makes the claim that many of us look upon God as a giant ATM machine, dispensing what we need when we need it. But this passage is presenting not a static, dispensing God, but a God who is at work within you. This attitude, this mind of Christ means that one has knowledge of the good and understands that good as a gift of grace.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer said this: “The church is the church only when it exists for others…The church must share in the secular problems of ordinary human life, not dominating, but helping and serving…It must not underestimate the importance of human example which has its origin in the humanity of Jesus.” The hymn that we read in Philippians speaks of “the God who is at work in us, enabling us both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” To put it into more modern language, God is in our will, our desires, our fears, our thoughts, our needs, and our work. Again, God is not “out there” but is present and part of each and every aspect of our lives. No longer can we be spectators. We are part of God.

And because we are part of God, the answer to suffering in this life cannot be limited to some future glorification or “evening out” of all the horrors and abuses of this life. Rather, because God is in us, because we are part of God, because God is always at work in us, we are called to confront injustices, to bring peace, and to bring that freedom of Christ to all. This hymn is not merely about knowing Christ; it is about becoming Christ in this life. Christ came as a human to show us how to do that. Christ came as a human to show us the God who is part of us all.

In the 1950-s, Sao Kya Seng, the prince of 34 independent Shan states in northeastern Burma, also known as Hsipaw, came to Denver, Colorado, to study agriculture. Since he wanted to experience what it was like to be a student in the US, he kept his identity secret. Not even his professors knew who he really was. One of his fellow students was Inge Sargent from Austria. Both of them being exchange students, Inge and the Burmese prince quickly found that they had a lot in common and started to spend more and more time together. Their friendship grew into love but the Burmese prince decided that he would not let on his true identity even though they were seriously dating. He did not want Inge’s decision to date him to be colored by the fact that she could marry into royalty. So when he finally proposed, with an engagement ring of ruby and diamond, Inge still did not know who he really was. Inge said yes and they got married, as any other couple, in the US. For their honeymoon, Sao Kya Seng was taking Inge to his home country, so that she could meet his family and see where he was from. When their ship reached the shores of Burma, hundreds of people were waiting at the harbor. Many of them had gone out in small boat, holding up welcoming signs. A band was playing and some people were tossing flowers at the ship. Surprised at all this excitement Inge turns to her husband, and asks whose arrival they are celebrating. “Inge,” he says, I am the prince of Hsipaw. These people are celebrating our arrival. You are now the princess.” (From Twilight over Burma: My Life As a Shan Princess, by Inge Sargent., in “God Incognito”, a sermon by Sigurd Grindheim, available at http://www.sigurdgrindheim.com/sermons/incognito.html, accessed 20 September, 2011)

 

  1. What meaning does this passage hold for you?
  2. What does it mean to you to “empty” yourself?
  3. What does it mean to become Christ in this life?
  4. What does this hymn say to us in our time today? 

 

GOSPEL: Matthew 21: 23-32

http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=278312586

This passage begins a section when Jesus enters the Temple. The first part deals with the challenge of Jesus’ authority and then continues with a parable of the two sons. This is the last time that Jesus enters the Temple. After this, the high priests and elders begin to plot his death. This text puts John and Jesus in the same category—those who reject John also reject Jesus. Both are from God, yet are very different. Their differences include religious styles as well as the fact that John wavered and wondered, while Jesus spoke with unrelenting authority. When Jesus asks “What do you think?” as he begins the parable, he does not allow the silence to stand. Those who had tried to trap Jesus end up being condemned. They were the ones that were not willing to allow change into their existence. They were the ones that were not willing to be changed by God. They were so focused on protecting God that they missed hearing God. It is a matter of words and actions, profession and practice.

The parable that Jesus tells sets up a comparison between two sons–one who says he will do what his father asks, but doesn’t, with one who says he won’t, but does. For every individual who hears this parable the comparison compels them to ask the question, Which am I? Am I the son who presents himself as obedient while running around raising havoc, or am I the daughter who to all appearances is the “black sheep” but in the end does what is needed? Which am I? Which are you? There is an accusation in the parable — some who claim to obey God and observe the requirements of the Law fail, in actuality, to do so. There is also (again) a reversal of expectations in the parable — those who are seen as the antithesis of the “good” believer, some who have failed to live in the right way, will be given entry to the kingdom of heaven first.

After telling the parable, Jesus returns to John. You know, John was sent to you, you leaders, you knowledgeable ones, you believers. But, interestingly enough, it was not you who accepted him. It was the tax collectors and the prostitutes and those in the bowels of your great society, those to whom you would never even pay attention that heard John’s message. What is that about? Why is that? Perhaps it was because you were so sure that you had the answer that you quit searching for it. Perhaps it was because you were so sure that you were right that you quit asking the questions. Is that really where you want to be?

If we take this passage as merely an indictment against the Pharisees, the chief priests and elders, if you will, I think we have probably missed the point. The same danger is there for us. We believers, we learned Bible-followers (even those of us who sometimes may dare to push orthodoxy to the edge!) always and forever run the risk of assuming that we have it figured out, that we know the right way, that we know what God wants (or who God wants!). And the fact that each of us is reading this passage and asking, “Which am I”, probably does not bode well for our understanding of it. Are we the faithful one or the unfaithful one? Does it really matter? They both lied. The only difference is that one of them came around. We know that’s the hero. But lest we get too comfortable with this scenario, faith and commitment are not just a one-time thing. As Elisabeth Elliot says, “the problem with living sacrifices is that they keep creeping off the altar.”

I think God wants us to ask questions. I think God wants us to keep searching. Most of all, I think God wants us to be open to the notion that the Truth of God is not limited to the pulpit or the teacher. It is not gleaned only from the Bible scholar or the righteous one. It is not fully represented by the one who sits in their assigned pew every Sunday morning and places the appropriate amount of offering in the collection plate. Sometimes the Truth that is God is found in the dusty nooks and crannies of the world, in those places that are not acceptable or desirable or sanitized. Sometimes God shows up in the most God-forsaken places imaginable like dirty gutters and dusty roads, like battlefields and pastures of starving children in the Horn of Africa, and, oh yeah, like a dirty trough in a grotto filled with animal waste or a place of execution on a hillside outside of Jerusalem. (You know, God shows up in the most bizarre places!) So, for those of us who think we know where and how to look for God, perhaps this is our calling to be open to the possibility that God is simply waiting for us to open our eyes and believe in what we see. The vineyard is waiting for us to get to work. Any more questions?

We would rather direct this parable to others. Lord knows we can point fingers. There are the right-wing Christians, the TV evangelists with the success gospels, the megachurches with their thousands. But this parable is addressed to us.

The world turns away from our wordy gospel. What stops those outside of the church in their tracks are those who have learned to move beyond the words. It isn’t only the Gandhis and the Rosa Parkses and the Mother Teresas who remind us all over again what faith and commitment are all about. It’s those medical practitioners in Doctors Without Borders who travel on their own time and expense to work in out- of-the-way places like Niger. They’re told that the people they treat are too far gone, that they will soon die from malnutrition. This doesn’t stop them — they do what they can do.

In every church I have served I still remember a few particular names and faces. Sometimes these are people who could not pray in public and were not comfortable teaching Sunday school. Some would not even serve on committees. Some had little formal education. But they were the ones with a casserole, the ones writing me a note when I needed it the most, the ones taking folks who didn’t own cars to the grocery store, and the ones whispering as they took my hand at the back door, “I pray for you every day.” Some living sacrifices do not slip off the altar.

My son sent me a bulletin from the Maranatha Baptist Church in Plains, Georgia. One Sunday he stood in a long line of visitors to listen to Jimmy Carter teach Sunday school. He stayed for the worship service and sent me the program for the day. My eye stopped at this notice in the bulletin: Rosalynn Carter will clean the church next Saturday. Jimmy Carter will cut the grass and trim the shrubbery.

It’s not always the one who talks or preaches or teaches who reflects the will of the Father. Sometimes it is the one who shows up on a hot Saturday afternoon to dust the pews, take out the trash, cut the grass — making the world a little better for Christ’s sake. (Excerpt from “Showing Up”, a sermon by Roger Lovette, available at http://www.religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=3253, accessed 20 September, 2011.)

 

  1. What meaning does this passage hold for you?
  2. Do you see any part of your own life in this parable?
  3. Where do you find yourself?
  4. How does this fit in with our time today?
  5. What is most bothersome about this passage for you?

 

 

Some Quotes for Further Reflection:

 

You and I are incomplete. I’m unfinished. I’m unfixed. And the reality is that’s where God meets me is in the mess of my life, in the unfixedness, in the brokenness. I thought he did the opposite, he got rid of all that stuff. But if you read the Bible, if you look at it at all, constantly he was showing up in people’s lives at the worst possible time of their life. (Mike Yaconelli)

 

Our God is the One who comes to us in a burning bush, in an angel’s song, in a newborn child. Our God is the One who cannot be found locked in the church, not even in the sanctuary. Our God will be where God will be with no constraints, no predictability. Our God lives where our God lives, and destruction has no power and even death cannot stop the living. Our God will be born where God will be born, but there is no place to look for the One who comes to us. When God is ready God will come even to a godforsaken place like a stable in Bethlehem. Watch…for you know not when God comes. Watch, that you might be found whenever, wherever God comes. (Ann Weems)

 

Judge a [person] by his questions rather than by his answers. (Voltaire (born Francois-Marie Arouet), 18th century)

 

 

Closing

 

Listen, dear friends, to God’s truth, bend your ears to what I tell you.

I’m chewing on the morsel of a proverb; I’ll let you in on the sweet old truths,

Stories we heard from our fathers, counsel we learned at our mother’s knee.

We’re not keeping this to ourselves, we’re passing it along to the next generation—

God’s fame and fortune, the marvelous things he has done.

 

He performed miracles in plain sight of their parents in Egypt, out on the fields of Zion.

He split the Sea and they walked right through it;

He piled the waters to the right and the left.

He led them by day with a cloud, led them all the night long with a fiery torch.

He split rocks in the wilderness, gave them all they could drink from underground springs; He made creeks flow out from sheer rock and water pour out like a river.

 

Listen, dear friends, to God’s truth, bend your ears to what I tell you…the marvelous things he has done. Amen.

 

(Psalm 78: 1-4, 12-16 (and then 1,4b repeated) in The Message / Remix, by Eugene Peterson, p. 998-999.)