“Truth, Freedom, and Change”—Sermon for Reformation Sunday, October 29, 2017

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Jeremiah 31:31-34
Romans 3:19-28
John 8:31-36

Children’s Message:
What makes for a good Christian?

It’s sort of a trick question. You’re either a Christian or you’re not—there’s no such thing as a ‘good’ one. A Christian is someone who intends to follow Jesus. Do you want to follow Jesus—to partner with God in God’s work in the world? If so, then you’re a Christian. And I guarantee that every one of us will have our moments when we do pretty good at that and our moments when we don’t.

So, what do you need to do to go to heaven?

Another trick question. Because you don’t have to do anything to experience God’s love and salvation. Everything you may have listed—like live a good life, go to worship, give faithfully, serve the poor, believe in Jesus—those are all how we might respond when we hear just how much God loves us.

I heard someone once say—and I don’t remember who or where—that God loves all of us, no matter what. Heaven is simply believing that we’re actually loved that much in spite of all the ways in which we misuse that love.

Let’s pray.
Thank you God for loving us, even and especially when we are not our best selves. Help us to believe it. Help us to live with joy knowing that we are always yours. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Message:
You may have heard that this year marks the 500th anniversary of the year Martin Luther posted his 95 statements of protest against practices of the Roman Catholic Church. Thanks to the newly minted printing press, those 95 statements, along with many other writings of Luther, made their way to the pope, to the leaders of the Holy Roman Empire, and to the people. He started a firestorm that could not be extinguished.

Along the way, the Church in its many forms have taken a variety of directions—some horrible missteps and some incredibly courageous and faithful leaps. And we continue moving forward, doing our best to follow the Christ of the Cross.

One of the most powerful experiences Luther had as he read Scripture was the discovery of grace. While the Church of his day preached confession for salvation, penance, fear, and hell…the Scripture told of love and life and grace and forgiveness. It opened a whole new world for him—and for us. And yet, we still struggle with what those words mean. We struggle to believe in the God revealed in Scripture—a God who does not require payment, a God who is not keeping a tally of our faults and failings, a God who loves without measure, gives without reciprocation, and welcomes without exception.

The Scriptures that are assigned to Reformation weekend every year are ones that lift up the revelations Luther had as his heart was opened to the true nature of God. We hear about God’s covenant written on the hearts of God’s people; we hear about God’s grace as a gift and humanity’s unfailing need for that gift; we hear about our complete inability to earn that gift; and we hear about the freedom from sin we receive through Christ. At every point, there is a focus on humanity’s frailty and God’s abiding grace. We cannot do anything to make God love us more—or less. We cannot do anything to get closer to God or make our way to heaven. We cannot do anything to earn Christ’s favor. In fact, we cannot even do anything to get ahead of or fall behind anyone else who might be different from us.

Now, on the surface, that sounds pretty good. But in reality, it goes against every grain of our very being. Because that’s just not how the world works. Even our constitution has to define freedom through things like the Bill of Rights—and that gets abused and misused regularly. As Christians, we balk at the thought that God might love and save people who have done horrible things just as readily as God loves and saves the people who do all the right things. And, quite frankly, the Church has depended upon guilt and fear in order to maintain itself for centuries.

At the time of Luther, the Church was telling people that if they said the right prayers and gave enough money, they could decrease time in purgatory for themselves and their loved ones. Who wouldn’t give up everything in this world to make sure the next wasn’t just as bad—or worse? And there are still those in the Church who approach membership and attendance and giving as an obligation—something you’re supposed to do in order to gain favor with God and with the community. Guilt and fear has contributed both to the building up of and the recent demise of congregations.

Guilt and fear has created whole new generations of people who see the Church as a big lie—inconsistent and oppressive. And they aren’t wrong. No matter how hard we try, we can’t understand a God who would operate without limitations and restrictions, expectations and demands. Because that’s how we operate. That’s how we survive. That’s how we maintain civil society. We pay taxes. We obey laws. We have rights that come with responsibilities. Without those parameters, we would have complete anarchy. We’re more comfortable with a dictator God than one who lets it all go.

But we misunderstand the freedom and grace and truth that Jesus reveals. In today’s gospel passage, he tells those who believe in him that abiding in his word and knowing the truth will set them free. And that just gets their hackles up. They’ve never been slaves. Despite their history of slavery in Egypt and Assyria and Babylon and Persia and under Rome, they still see their identity as God’s chosen people. God’s on their side—against the world. All they need is a Messiah to get rid of the current Roman problem, and they’ll be just fine.

Of course, Jesus wasn’t talking about slavery between people but slavery within people—within individuals as well as a community. We are, indeed, slaves—slaves to our political systems and our wallets, to our bill of rights and our national identity, slaves to our religious denominations and our theological dogmas. We are slaves to our human way of viewing God. And the Word—the Truth—the Son makes us free.

The Son makes us free by showing the natural consequences of our slavery—especially the slavery of religion. I’m making a distinction between religion and faith, here. Religion naturally sets up rules. It relies on obedience. It thrives on guilt and fear. It finds a scapegoat—a guilty party—and kills it in order to show God just how far it will go to earn God’s allegiance—to keep God on its side.

Jesus’ death is what happens when religion is in charge. And religion can take the form of politics and family systems and budget decisions and gangs and rioting groups—some of them often well-intentioned but nevertheless misguided. The truth of Jesus confronts all of those systems and tells us again and again—this is NOT how God operates. And that is NOT freedom.

Freedom isn’t a release from rules and expectations. Freedom isn’t an opportunity to do whatever you want to do. The freedom God offers through Jesus is life without worrying about death; worship without worrying about numbers; love without worrying about vulnerability; giving without worrying about what to keep. Luther said, “Sin boldly; yet believe in Christ even more boldly.” Freedom is following Jesus without fear.

Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton quotes “Robert Capon in his book, Between Noon and Three. He writes, ‘If we are ever to enter fully into the glorious liberty of the children of God, we are going to have to spend more time thinking about freedom than we do. The church, by and large, has a poor record of encouraging freedom. She has spent so much time inculcating in us the fear of making mistakes that she has made us like ill-taught piano students: we play our songs, but we never really hear them, because our main concern is not to make music, but to avoid some flub that will get us in dutch.’”

She goes on to say, “Think of the systems we have erected, promoted and been trapped in to keep us all in line. We can’t hear the music. And what heavenly music do we miss because we cannot hear? The promise of freedom. The reality that our freedom has been realized through the death and resurrection of Jesus. In our bondage, it has become all about us. Luther’s definition of sin, ‘the soul curved in on itself’ traps us in our own echo chamber.”

The beauty of being a Church founded on Reformation is that we are always being prepared to challenge, adjust, and reform our approach to the world as we grow deeper in faith. We are not a people of maintaining what has always been. We are a people who have precedence to live boldly in the world, trusting in the love of God through Jesus Christ.

Pastor Tobi White
Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church
Lincoln, NE

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“Sharing Faith”—sermon for October 15, 2017 by Sarah Kocher, Young Adult in Global Mission

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Some of you know that I got back to the United States in late July from participating in the ELCA’s Young Adults in Global Mission program. I spent just under a year living in rural England in an area called the Forest of Dean, working for a Christian non-profit called The Ugly Duckling Company. And during this year, I attended a nearby Anglican church called St James Bream (with Bream being the name of the village). But I must tell you: in this church, I strongly disliked approximately 25 percent of the services.

Now, there is a very specific reason for this. Once a month, the church would have this thing they liked to call cafe church. What this meant was that once a month, the church would rearrange the sanctuary. They took the tables that usually leaned up against the back wall near the door and lugged them out into the space and set them up, and they took the chairs that were usually linked together in neat, squished rows so that every time you sat next to someone you were basically sitting in their lap — did I mention that this is not a Lutheran church? — they dissolved the rows and separated those chairs so that they could instead arrange them around the tables that they had lugged out from the back of the room. And here’s the crucial difference: instead of serving tea and coffee and squash — which is just juice from concentrate — instead of serving these refreshments after the service, they served them before. This way, you need to use the bathroom during the service instead of after, which drives you to a feverish participation in worship and prayer.

The idea of cafe church centers around this Bible study-esque environment in which congregants discuss that week’s Bible passage in groups around these tables that were lugged out into the room from the back corner. Often there would be a poem, a video or a piece of art that prompted group discussion, and the congregation re-formed after discussion time to shout out what people had talked about or themes people found important.

Let’s check in with another group exploring what it looks like to be people of faith within a church community: the Thessalonians. So, if you’ll humor me, I’d like to walk through today’s verses again.

Paul, Silas and Timothy,
To the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ:
Grace and peace to you.
We always thank God for all of you and continually mention you in our prayers. We remember before our God and Father your work produced by faith, your labor prompted by love, and your endurance inspired by hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.
For we know, brothers and sisters loved by God, that he has chosen you, because our gospel came to you not simply with words but also with power, with the Holy Spirit and deep conviction. You know how we lived among you for your sake. You became imitators of us and of the Lord, for you welcomed the message in the midst of severe suffering with the joy given by the Holy Spirit. And so you became a model to all the believers in Macedonia and Achaia. The Lord’s message rang out from you not only in Macedonia and Achaia — your faith in God has become known everywhere.

Therefore we do not need to say anything about it, for they themselves report what happened when we visited you. They tell how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead — Jesus, who rescues us from the coming wrath.

So, what do we know? That the members of the church of Thessalonica now, upon Paul writing his letter, were not necessarily — and I think we can pretty confidently say just not — followers of Jesus before Paul showed up with the gospel crew and a baptismal font to drop some Christian scripture. So this change of behavior that is noted within the church community, this change that other Christians are reporting to Paul, Silas and Timothy after they left, is distinctive.

I’ve chosen this word specifically. My boss — his name was Paul — he grew up in a Brethren church context in Wales. Now, for those of you who don’t know what that means … me either. However, what I can tell you is that the Brethren love alliterations to describe processes of faith development. And in keeping with that tradition, my boss came up with this eight-step path that he recognized as the path that people take from not believing in, to becoming a disciple of, Jesus. And naturally, every step begins with the letter D.

Now, I have to admit that I don’t remember every D. Please don’t tell on me. However, the third D did stick, and the third D in Paul’s eight-step process is distinctiveness. According to Paul (this would be my boss, not the apostle), distinctiveness is that quality that Christians have that separates them in behavior from those around them. Distinctiveness is living in the world, but not being dragged down by it because there’s something else in your life that dramatically impacts your perspective. (To clarify, that something else is God.) And distinctiveness is what these newly churched Thessalonians are being extolled for — their obvious change of behavior from what was the social norm.

Let me tell you why I was not the number one fan of cafe church. With the exception of days on which there were puppet shows, which were WORTH IT, cafe church days made me squirm because it meant that I had to sit down in a little circle of believers and actually talk about my faith. And the tradition of faith-sharing that these specific believers came from is very different than mine. Within the UK’s church community that I experienced, the concept of faith-sharing is extremely verbally centered. Faith-sharing is talking. So within this community were people who had honed, for years, the language and the attitude of the church, and who had arsenals of scripture in their back pocket for every situation and who could pray you into the grave and back out again because that is what faith-sharing looked like for them.

And, furthermore, what did living as a disciple look like? It looked like making more disciples. It looked like evangelism: to convert others to Christianity, and to do that by telling people who God is and how they can sign up.

This emphasis on evangelism made me uncomfortable. It made me feel like every conversation a Christian had with a non-Christian had an ulterior motive, like living distinctively was bait we used to trap people into Christianity. But, when you look at it, the underlying question is this: What does it mean to share your faith? What does it mean to share your faith?

This past Thursday night, I attended a talk called “The Art of Writing a Sermon.” I assumed that it was divine intervention that this talk was being offered the only week in recent history that I have been asked to prepare a talk for church, and took it as further proof when the presenter introduced himself as an ELCA Lutheran pastor (although in Minnesota that’s perhaps less divine intervention and more a reflection of the fact that probably two thirds of Minnesota’s population is Lutheran). But nonetheless, during the talk, this pastor told us what he thought was one of the most important things you can bring to a sermon: context, context, context. And I would argue that this approach translates into any form of faith-sharing: context matters.

It is hard for me to read this passage from Thessalonians and not see a connection between the community in Thessalonica and the community I lived with for a year in southwest England. Their contexts remind me of each other. I see the Thessalonians as part of a larger community that is perhaps not as big of fans of Christianity as their churched counterparts. And when you look at the context of Christianity in the UK, it’s a similar story. The population of the United Kingdom is largely secular, and when you look at the pockets of Christian church community peppered into the landscape of religious nones and on top of that the numbers of those who live by a different faith tradition or religion, I imagine that it could, from the inside, feel very isolating.

The context I grew up in, and the context that we are sitting in right now, is very different. While it is also true that there is religious diversity within the United States and that there is a growing number of nones, this is not a context in which the Christian population feels tenuous. We are governed largely by Christians, but we are not connected explicitly to the state in a sanctioned way that others can point to and criticize. And in the context we live in, what does faith-sharing look like?
The language I hear is hands and feet. It’s a faith-sharing tradition driven by activity.

When I read the verses from Thessalonians, it jumps out to me: Paul writes about the Thessalonians’ work produced by faith, labor prompted by love and endurance inspired by hope. He speaks of the Christians in Thessalonians as models to all believers. The gospel, Paul writes, came not simply in words but also with power. Faith-sharing in today’s U.S. context is about getting to work in the world because we recognize a God who celebrates justice and love and service. It’s not mouth — it’s hands and feet.

I took a look-see at the ELCA’s website — just a little peek. I was looking for what the ELCA has to say about mission, because when you look at Paul and Silas and Timothy, right, that’s what they were doing in Thessalonica: “You know how we lived among you for your sake.” And when I think about it, I also see this emphasis on verbal faith-sharing in the UK as an expression of mission, from communities who see their own distinctive lifestyles and are eager to make a positive impact on the lives of others in a community that they feel increasingly separated from. And the ELCA’s website said two things that stood out. The first is the mission of the ELCA, which says, “Together in Jesus Christ we are freed by grace to lived faithfully, witness boldly and serve joyfully.” And the second is from the ELCA’s global mission page, which says that Global Mission builds on the capacity of its Lutheran companion churches in areas related to — and among a list of things like sustainable development, global advocacy and disaster response is also evangelical witness.

What does faith-sharing look like in our context? What does evangelical witness, and witnessing boldly, look like in our context?

For a year, I have been uncomfortable with the E tacked onto the front of the LCA. Because an evangelist, according to the dictionary, is “a person who seeks to convert others to the Christian faith, especially by public preaching.” And if we are evangelical, what are we but evangelists? But before I looked up evangelist, I looked up evangelical. In the spirit of full disclosure, I have to admit that I was absolutely expecting the dictionary to say something along the lines of, “of or pertaining to an evangelist,” as the dictionary tends, I’ve found, to define a word using another word that you don’t know the definition to and thus be maddeningly unhelpful. But instead, for the definition of evangelical, I found this: “Of or according to the teaching of the Gospel or the Christian religion.”

In case you missed it, there’s a lot of leeway there. There’s room for hands and feet. What’s more, there’s room for mouth and ears and eyes and nose and head and shoulders and knees and… you get the idea.

I recognize that the ELCA website is not the Bible. But I would also be wrong if I said that it does not lend influence to our faiths and the way we share them. And if I’ve learned anything this year, it’s that we all live in different contexts. Neighborhoods. Tax brackets. Family history. Ability levels. What matters to the community that you are a part of, and how does your faith, and your faith-sharing, speak positively into that context through word or deed? There’s a chance that it’s something that makes you uncomfortable. And there’s a chance that that will be good for you. What does faith-sharing look like in your context? If it’s cafe church, that’s fine. If it’s puppets, I’m behind you all the way. But whatever it is, there is one thing Paul reminds us it should look like: a work produced by faith, and a labor prompted by love.

Amen.

“Not Your Typical King”—Sermon for October 15, 2017

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Isaiah 25:1-9
Philippians 4:1-9
Matthew 22:1-14

Children’s Message:
Simon says (but doesn’t do).
Do adults ever tell you to do one thing, but they do something different—like say a word that they don’t want you to say? It’s confusing. And when our own actions don’t match what we say is important to us, we confuse others.

Today, Jesus’ parable seems confusing because he’s talking about a powerful person who does awful things, and we often assume he’s referring to how God works. But if Jesus acts differently—like loving enemies and accepting people as they are, then this parable doesn’t make sense. It’s like describing two different god’s—but there is only the one God in the Father and the Son. You’ll have to listen to find out more.

Let’s pray. Dear God, open our hearts and minds to seek your true will for us and others. Help Us act in line with our faith. Amen.

Message:
Last week, I had the distinct pleasure of completely losing my voice for Sunday’s worship. Because of that, instead of my prepared sermon, we had a chance to watch a video of theologian Richard Rohr. In it, he challenged the concept of a vengeful god. He pointed out that, for many Christians, we find ourselves relating to two different gods—the one revealed in Jesus, who loves the enemy and forgives and is kind and compassionate; and the one after the resurrection who sends to hell anyone who doesn’t believe or practice faith in the right way. And he pointed out that when we see our god as vengeful and punitive, we give ourselves the right to act vengeful and punitive, as well.

So, the parable Jesus tells today is one that forces us to consider that approach pretty seriously. Despite the glaring problems with a king who destroys whole cities on the basis of a group of murderers and kills a man for wearing the wrong clothes to a wedding banquet, many sermons try to focus on the extended invitation and the generosity of the king. Because, quite frankly, we tend to assume that any parable with a powerful man in it is a parallel for the powerful god. But I’ve discovered some intriguing challenges to that this week.

First, a language nuance. When Jesus says, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to,” an equally appropriate translation would be, “The kingdom of heaven has been compared to.” It suggests that he is lifting up a comparison he doesn’t necessarily agree with.

Second, some context. In that day, no one sent out ‘save-the-date’ cards. In fact, weddings were not schedule on certain dates at times. Instead, an invitation would be sent out, saying that a wedding would be taking place soon, so be ready. This is probably where the story of keeping one’s lamp lit while awaiting the bridegroom comes into play. Since preparations were so elaborate, those invited were to keep their options open and be prepared to be notified when the banquet was ready. Seeing as it was coming from the king celebrating the wedding of his son, this would most certainly be expected as a priority.

And yet, because the invitation came from a king celebrating the wedding of his son, neglecting the invitation wasn’t just a faux pas—it was a political statement, it was a rebellion. They were, in effect, saying that they didn’t recognize the king’s authority. And after turning away the king’s servants, they began killing the servants. The king’s response was to send the army and not only destroy the murderers but the whole cities—including the innocent.

Of course, a king cannot hold a wedding banquet without a full house, so he sends servants out to invite anyone they come across. After killing the noble and prominent members of the kingdom, all that’s left are the poor common folks. And they don’t dare rebel—so they come to the feast. Perhaps they were hungry, considering they were living under the reign of a tyrant.

But one person came dressed inappropriately. One person came and protested to the king’s face. One person came, refusing to honor the charade of dressing in joy and celebration. Perhaps he came dressed in ash and sackcloth—the clothing of one in mourning. And that one was thrown out into outer darkness—denied entry, denied food, denied recognition, denied acknowledgement.

Jesus is still talking to the chief priests and elders—the ones who originally challenged his authority. This is the third of three parables he tells them in response to that challenge. The first is of two sons—one who does the father’s will and one who doesn’t. The second is of the landowner and tenants. It, too, told of the master sending servants who were killed by the tenants. And the priests and elders wrongly assumed that the landowner would destroy the tenants in revenge for his son’s death.

The priests and elders were representatives of Herod—the paranoid, narcissistic puppet king on the Jewish throne. The parable of the king and the banquet sounds much more like the work of Herod than it does of God. Herod would be one to destroy cities out of revenge, just as his father destroyed the children of Bethlehem in an attempt to kill Jesus. Herod would be one to pad the numbers at the banquet table with anyone willing to show up just so that he looked popular. Herod would be one to send someone to their death for dressing in protest to his tyranny.

And Jesus would be one to don the clothes of mourning in order to show the world that Herod is not worthy of his obedience.

No, I don’t think this parable is a description of the kingdom of heaven. Because I don’t think this king is a depiction of the God revealed in Jesus Christ. But he is a depiction of how this world and the world in Jesus’ day expects God to be—just like tyrant kings with over-inflated egos. You see, revenge is never Jesus’ answer—but it is always Herod’s. Looking successful is never Jesus’ goal—but it is always Herod’s. Blind obedience to the throne is never Jesus’ direction—but it is always Herod’s.

Instead, Jesus challenges that Herod and Rome and the Empire stands for. He challenges oppression. He subverts authority. He questions assumptions. He undermines the status quo. He speaks out against tyranny and protests injustice. And that kind of behavior gets him killed.

But the true God—the God worthy of worship—the God who provides the banquet for the sake of the world—this God does not let a little thing like death undo the movement toward a new world and a new hope. This God breaks apart injustice and false authority and oppression and status quo and tyranny by overcoming death and the grave and bringing forth life and resurrection. This God may be killed on a cross of tyranny and oppression, but this God bursts forth with a light and a love that has no bounds.

Next to the God revealed in Jesus the Christ, Herod is a gnat. And yet, because of the God revealed in Jesus the Christ, even Herod has a place at the table. You have a place at the table. Your enemy has a place at the table. There is no dress code and no invitation to present. There are no qualifiers and no punishment. You will not be turned away, and your welcome is always open. That is who our God is, revealed in Jesus the Christ.

(The irony, of course, is that this is a weekend in which we are not scheduled to celebrate communion!)

Pastor Tobi White
Our Saviour’s Lutheran
Lincoln, NE

“Tending the Vines”—Sermon for October 8, 2017

Pruning grapesIsaiah 5:1-7
Philippians 3:4b-14
Matthew 21:33-46

Children’s Message:
Does anyone here know what it takes to cultivate grapes? You like to eat grapes, right? But where do they come from? And how do they grow?

Well, grapes grow on large vines. Which means that the vines need something sturdy to keep them off of the ground—like a trellis or a fence. They need to be pruned every year in the spring. And edible fruit won’t grow on the vines for up to 3 years. So, if you plant grapes next spring, don’t expect any grape juice for a while.

Grapes take a lot of work—kind of like our faith. Today, Jesus tells a story about a landowner who planted grape vines and invested in them and spent the time waiting for them to be harvested. If our faith is kind of like growing grapes, what kind of work do you think we need to do to get faith-fruits? How do we tend to our faith so that we produce something good?
Prayer, worship, Bible study, eat healthy, exercise, take care of body and spirit, serve others, give.

It sounds like the people who ended up working for the landowner didn’t do these things very well, did they? They were greedy and wanted to keep the harvest for themselves. They were mean to the landowner’s servants and to his son. Is bullying a good faith practice? Is hurting other people? Is using the Bible to be hurtful to others? Is praying that someone gets hurt?

No. Revenge and hurtfulness are never okay. Service, care, and respect are always okay. Learning about God and talking to God are always okay. Taking care of our bodies and our minds and our spirits is always okay. Taking care of others is always okay. Those will be the fruits of faith.

Let’s pray. Dear God, thank you for making us caretakers of faith. Help us do good things that will help others and honor you through our words and our actions. Amen.

Message:
A few weeks ago, I talked a little about the difficulty of telling the difference between weeds and intentional plants. And I explained how, though I fell in love with the flowers and plants that were in place when we moved into our house, I have systematically redone almost all of the plantings over the last nine years—partly because I couldn’t tell if I was pulling weeds or intended flowers.

One of the things we had in our yard were grape vines along our back fence. They would grow thick and lush. They provided sort of a privacy fence. And I thought they were great—for about a year or two. But I would always have to go around the other side to cut back the vines that were extending across to the other side of the fence. And the weight of the grapes was causing the fence to dip in places. And, quite frankly, we never did anything with the grapes. So, I cut them all out. The grapes weren’t that great, anyway. And we weren’t very good stewards of the plants.

I have to think about the passage from Isaiah. God sings a song to the beloved—a practice that would be common in a marriage ceremony. It would be filled with language of love and blessing, of abundance and generosity. But that’s not how this song goes. It takes a turn for the worse. Rather than the abundance of grapes after care and tending, the vines have yielded wild grapes—or stink berries, I remember hearing somewhere.

And God calls Israel to witness to the injustice before them. Could more have been done? Could God have made it any clearer? Or is it time to tear it all apart and let the vines be devoured and trampled? God compares Israel and Judah to the vineyard. And though God expected them to produce justice, they brought about bloodshed. God expected them to produce righteousness, but their own people cried out from oppression. And the injustice did not come from other nations or empires—it came from the leaders of Israel—it came from the prominent and powerful of the chosen people. God called them to account—they were destroying themselves, their own people.

It’s not difficult to imagine such a judgment as we listen to various groups lob rhetoric back and forth about gun violence and gun control, about the right to bear arms and the right to life, about racial profiling and gang violence and drugs and domestic abuse. We are destroying ourselves—each other. And much of this destruction comes from a sense of self-righteousness, anger, fear, and vengeance.

Let me give you an example. Last week, Mark and I finally got around to watching the last of the Hunger Games movies. The plot-line is that American society had gotten so out of control that the government divided the people up into districts. Each district was responsible for producing or providing something specific for the country. But the capital reaped most of the fruits, and the districts often went hungry. At one point, apparently, there was a mighty uprising that was eventually stopped by the capital. District 13 was, as far as anyone knew, completely destroyed. And from that point on, the capital held what they called ‘Hunger Games’ in which the remaining districts each supplied two youth—a boy and a girl—to battle the youth of the other districts to the death. Only one person could be a victor.

After 75 years of this, the tides began to change. District 13 had not been destroyed but had been building technology and weaponry so that they would be ready when another revolution was ripe. Here’s the spoilers—in case anyone wants to stop listening (briefly). The revolution took hold, and the districts managed to take the capital—not without sacrificing many innocent victims along the way, including some of their own. The president was arrested and scheduled for an execution.

Here’s where it gets interesting. The president of district 13 appointed herself to be ‘interim’ president until a free election could be held. And she determined that it was time that they held another symbolic ‘Hunger Games’—except this time, it would be capital children killing each other.

That is the kind of ideology that creeps into our midst when we aren’t looking. It’s the kind of thinking that tells us that it’s okay to do back to them what they did to us.

Jesus tells this parable about a landowner who leased his vineyard. And when harvest came, the tenants refused to return what they owed to the landowner. The landowner sent servants to collect, but they were beaten and killed. Perhaps his own son would carry some weight and authority, but the tenants killed him, as well.

At this point, it’s important to ask how the chief priests and elders were hearing this story. Some speculate that they saw themselves as the servants sent to lead the people of Israel during times of oppression and occupation. And the evil tenants were the various empires who had, over time, trampled over Israel—Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Greece, and now Rome. So, when Jesus asks them what they think the landowner will do to the tenants, the chief priests and elders answer with a bit of gusto and self-satisfaction. “He will put those wretches to a wretched death!”

Sounds pretty good, doesn’t it? It really fits our sensibilities. That’s justice…isn’t it? Or is it?

It’s the kind of justice that the chief priests and scribes expected of God—an imperial theology that maintains order by breaking the spirit of the masses in case the masses were to ever fight back. For some reason, we think that if we, ‘the oppressed’, were to ever gain power, we would be better at pleasing God and doing what is right—like the District 13 president. But honestly, what is to keep any of us from becoming corrupt when handed authority and power?

Check out the gospel passage again. Jesus never suggests that the answer given is the right answer. He does, however, say “the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom.” It’s got me wondering—is it because he is subtly accusing the Jewish leaders of being like the wicked tenants? Or is it because they assumed that God, as the landowner, would respond to violence with violence?

Is violence and retribution a fruit of the spirit? Does it help cultivate faith and love and compassion and hope? Does it heal the wounds we inflict on ourselves? Or does God have something better in mind for us?

 

This is why God works through the broken, the weak, the humble, the lowly. It is why, as we heard last week, that the tax collectors and prostitutes will enter the Kingdom ahead of the pious. It is why Paul considers all that he has accomplished in life just a pile of poo—rubbish—nothing compared to what God accomplishes in him. It is why Christ denied the power due him as God and took the form of a slave and willingly followed the path of humanity all the way to death on a cross.

Because God handles evil far differently than we do. God deals with hate by pouring out love. God deals with vengeance by offering forgiveness. God deals with death through resurrection. There is no rhetoric. There is no argument. There is no fight to create winners and losers. When we cry out to God, “How long, O Lord, will you let this happen?” God gathers us, embraces us, and sobs, “How long, my beloved, will you participate in it? How long will you demand retribution? How long will you expect vengeance? How long will you put your life above the lives of others? How long will you prepare yourselves for war instead of peace?”

Pastor Tobi White
Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church
Lincoln, NE