Monday, September 18, 2017

The Cookie Bandit Caper: A Sermon on Matthew 18:21-35

The Gospel for this week really feels like it’s the first part of a two-part sermon, the second part being the one we heard last week. Because while last week we heard about what to do if another member of the church sins against us, this week we hear a parable about the only way we can hope to do what we heard about last week right and well, if it is grounded in this expansive forgiveness.

Our reading for this morning starts out with Peter coming to Jesus with that well-known question, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Because we know Jesus’ response to Peter so well, we lose weight of Peter’s original proposition. Seven, if you recall, is the number used in the Old Testament to represent completion. Seven is also a reference to the story I referenced last week. After Cain killed Abel, God promised Cain that even though he was being cast away, a sevenfold vengeance would happen to anyone who harmed him. Peter’s proposal of seven was reversing that initial obligation of retaliation.

But Jesus, as Jesus is wont to do, upended the entire retribution structure with his response. “Not seven times,” Jesus said to Peter, “but, I tell, you, seventy-seven times.” Or seventy times seven times. The Greek number system is different than ours, and the phrase used here could just as correctly be translated seventy-seven, as the NRSV does, or seventy times seven, as the King James Bible does. So either seventy-seven or four hundred and ninety could be correct. And really it doesn’t matter at all, because the point Jesus was making with all those sevens was if you’re counting at all you’re missing the point. Jesus’ response to Peter wasn’t about upping the ante, but about changing the very nature of forgiveness, which the following parable demonstrates.

But before we get into the parable, let’s refresh our memories a bit about the way Jesus used parables. Because scholars are pretty sure Matthew laid a little bit of commentary around this parable. Matthew remembered this parable as a help illustration of forgiveness for the church. But Jesus always used parables to disorient the listener and unsettle their expectations to reveal the surprising proclamation of the kingdom of God.

“For this reason,” Jesus began, “the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves.” We are told that the first slave owed ten thousand talents. If we were well-versed in ancient Roman money, this amount would instantly key us in that something weird was going on. Ten-thousand was the largest number in the Roman mathematic system. And a talent was the largest unit in the Roman monetary system. Scholars are divided on the exact weight, but it was somewhere in the neighborhood of fifty pounds of silver. One talent equaled about fifteen years of wages for a laborer. And this guy owed ten-thousand of them. That’s one hundred and fifty thousand years worth of debt! Commentaries are quick to point out that with this kind of amount it was probably not a personal debt. More likely it was the result of mismanagement or poor contracting with subject nations to raise taxes. But even so, this number is astronomical. To put it in perspective, the annual tax income for all of Herod the Great’s territories was nine-hundred talents per year. Ten-thousand talents would have been more than the taxes of all of Syria, Phoenicia, Judea, and Samaria combined. Clearly ten-thousand talents, the largest amount of the largest unit of money, was less about accurate accounting and more about getting the point across that this guy is in an obscene amount of debt. Despite his arguing in verse twenty-six that he just needed time, the servant’s situation was hopeless. He was never going to be able to be right with the king.

And the king forgave him for everything. He didn’t give him more time, or work out a payment plan, or offer something in exchange for the debt. He simply forgave it, wiped the slate clean, allowed the man to start over. What had once been an incomprehensible burden was gone with the wave of a hand.

But what happened next has to make us wonder if the man fully realized the tremendous grace he’d received. Because immediately upon leaving the king’s presence he came across another slave who owed him money. One-hundred denarii, the parable tells us. Now, let’s be real, one-hundred denarii is no small sum. A denarii is roughly a day’s wages for a laborer, so we’re talking about a third of someone’s yearly income. But compared to the one hundred and fifty thousand years, one-hundred denarii is pocket change. Yet when the man who had just been forgiven this huge amount came across someone who owed him a lesser amount, he responded with vengeance, throwing the man into prison until he could pay his debts. Which opens up a whole interesting conversation about the effectiveness of punishing someone for being poor that sadly we don’t have time to go into right now, but we totally should. The fellow slaves, acting as placeholders for the reader, were rightly enraged at this injustice and reported the action to the king, who returned to hold the first slave to account. “You wicked slave! I forgave you all the debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?” And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he could pay his entire debt.

The overall thrust of this parable seems on the surface pretty obvious. We are to forgive as we have been forgiven, expansively and without regard to the weight of the wrong or the deservingness of the other. Because we have been forgiven by God, so to are we to forgive. Forgive more, more fully, more graciously, more expansively.

Forgive more is definitely the message if we read this parable in isolation. But Jesus didn’t give us just this parable alone. And reading this parable after the teaching from last week about how to approach someone who has sinned against us, and then taking these things out of the world of parables and in to the actual world, we can pretty quickly see how difficult this is. Here’s a super silly example that happened to me this week, where I had to put this forgiveness and calling out thing into practice. On Thursday while I was working on this sermon, a three-year-old with a very dirty face wandered into my office. Turns out this three-year-old had found my snack stash for the afterschool program and had helped himself to the better part of a box of chocolate cookies. Here’s my thought process as I’m working through this with these two Gospel readings in my mind. First off, they’re not even really my cookies. I didn’t do anything to earn the cookies, I don’t really deserve the cookies. David brought the cookies for the afterschool kids, if the cookies belong to anyone, they’re David’s cookies or the bus kids cookies. I should be asking David’s forgiveness for squandering his gift. Also, this guy is three. His concept of whether or not it’s ok to eat a whole box of cookies and who may be the rightful owner of the cookies is fairly limited. And Teresa and Val and I work really hard to make sure that the Co-op members know that this is a place where they are welcome, and where their children are welcome. Childcare is a major barrier for women in poverty, and we really strive to be a family-friendly space. This is not just for the members themselves, but it is really important to me that the kids also feel welcome here. Kids in poverty are dealing with a ton of stress, and I want the church to be a place where they know they are loved and treasured and cared for. So of course I’m going to forgive the cookie bandit.

But forgiveness and grace are not the same as niceness. And in fact, pretending it’s ok is actually a detriment to him. One because it’s dangerous for him to be wandering around places where he doesn’t belong. But two because part of healthy childhood development includes setting healthy boundaries. If I really care about the well-being of this child, which I do, I need to be proactive about setting up rules for him and making sure those rules are enforced. Even though he’s forgiven, I do also need to let him know that rifling through boxes and stealing cookies is not appropriate behavior and will not be tolerated. I need to enforce with his mom that she has to be responsible for him when he is in the building, but I need to also be careful of her feelings, so she knows that my feedback comes from a place of welcome and support, and not from a place of condemnation. So fellow and I had a conversation on Thursday, which his mom was a part of, about how he cannot be running around eating cookies, and how if he wants a cookie he has to ask his mom, and she can give him one, but he cannot go finding them on his own. On Thursday I was on my game, he was in a good mood, his mom was comfortable, and it was a good conversation. We set boundaries, he grew, his mom grew, and I grew, and our relationships with each other were strengthened because we were able to be honest about what the problem was and how we could fix it together. But he’s three, so we’ll probably have this conversation a lot more times. Not about cookies, I’m forgiving but I’m also not dumb, the cookies are in a new, out-of-reach home now, but about other things. And there will be days where I will not be as tolerant as I was able to be Thursday and I’ll get mad, or call him out for something he didn’t actually do. On those days, I hope Teresa or Val or Gwen or someone else in the building will be able to call out my mistake and help me see how I could have handled it differently. There will be days when he’ll not be in as easy-going of a mood himself, and he will not be open to hearing my correction. I hope on those days there will be someone who he will be able to hear better, or that I’ll have the patience to wait until he’s calmed down and we can try again.

This is a story about a three-year-old and cookies, but you can see how the example could be extrapolated forward into all sorts of struggles and conflicts. Forgiveness and reconciliation are not straightforward processes. There is generally not a clear right and wrong, but a hundred different complex greys that muddy the waters. Some sins need binding, and some loosing, sometimes we are to call out and sometimes we are to let slide. But the pairing of these stories assure us that when, not if but when, we get it wrong, we are forgiven completely by God again and again, even though we do not deserve it. May the confidence of God’s unending forgiveness of you give you the strength to forgive others and to move forward in love, and the comfort to forgive yourself and try again when you fall short. Because it is only through the amazing grandness of God’s unfailing love that we may come to live that love out ourselves. Amen.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Conversation Points for Matthew 18:21-35

Study Format:
1. Read passage aloud. What did you notice in the reading? What words or phrase caught your attention?
2. Read passage aloud a second time. What questions would you ask the text?
3. Read passage aloud a third time. What do you hear God calling you to do or be in response to this text?

Interesting Ideas to Consider:
• In Leviticus 19:17-18, the command to reason with your neighbor is followed by the command to love your neighbor as yourself. Similarly, Jesus follows up the rules for dealing with sin in the community with this requirement for forgiveness. Only a congregation who reacts with this expansive understanding of forgiveness can correctly apply the practice set in Matthew 18:15-20.
• Peter’s offer to forgive seven times is itself generous, reversing the sevenfold vengeance of Genesis 4:15 [“Whoever kills Cain will suffer a sevenfold vengeance.”]
• The Greek number Jesus gave (hebdomekontakis hepta) can just as correctly be translated “seventy-seven” as “seventy times seven.” The difference between Peter’s offer and Jesus’ response is not numerical, but is about the very nature of forgiveness. Namely, if you’re keeping count, you’re missing the point.
• As is regularly the case in Matthew’s retelling of the parables, Matthew seems to have put his own gloss over this one to make it apply more closely to the church. It is important to read Matthew’s lesson, but also to look past it to the disorienting message of the kingdom of God that Jesus shared.
• The servant in the story is not a household slave but a subordinate official. The NIV’s translation of “servant” is better than the NRSV’s “slave.”
• Boring indicates the debt was probably incurred through the mismanagement of the king’s resources or contracting to raise taxes, rather than by personal expenditure. However, even with this, the debt stated is unrealistic. A talent is the largest monetary unit (20.4 kg of silver), equal to 6,000 drachmas, or the income of a manual laborer for fifteen years. “Ten thousand” (Greek myrias¸ from which we get the word “myriad”) was the largest possible number. So it is the largest number of the largest unit of money. To put it in perspective, the annual tax income for all of Herod the Great’s territories was 900 talents per year. 10,000 talents would exceed the taxes for all of Syria, Phoenicia, Judea, and Samaria. The debt is unpayable and despite his claims in v. 25-26, the servant’s situation is hopeless. Prison is a punitive measure, punishment for his mismanagement, but it doesn’t change the impossibility of repaying the debt.
• The debt of the second servant, while minuscule compared to the incalculable debt of the first, was still substantial. A denarii is about a day’s wages for a laborer.
• The thrust of the parable is the contrast between the undeserved mercy the servant received from the king and his failure to show even less mercy to his fellow servant. The other servants, and the reader, are outraged, and share their outrage with the king.
• Scholars are divided if v. 34 was part of Jesus’ original words or was added by Matthew to shift the focus to be more about forgiveness than the mercy of the kingdom of heaven. Ending the parable with a question aligns with the style of Jonah, where God ended with the question to Jonah if the people of Nineveh deserved mercy. Most scholars however, believe v. 35 was definitely an addition by Matthew to drill the point in further.

Works Sourced:
Boring, M. Eugene. “The Gospel of Matthew.” The New Interpreter’s Bible Volume VIII. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1995.

Monday, September 11, 2017

Here Among Us: A Sermon on Matthew 18:15-20

Jesus told his disciples, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” Is there any better news for a small congregation than this? “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” We may be small, but there are way more than two or three of us here. We sitting at what, around thirty this morning? Jesus is here like fifteen times!

“For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” What these words from Jesus tell us is an affirmation we were made for community; that we are made to be in community. That humanity was made for community is one of those awesome times where science and scripture meet. In the creation story, God said “It is not good that the man should be alone.” So God made man a partner, someone to be in community with. We read it in scripture, and it plays out in science. Study after study has found the health risks of loneliness are comparable to obesity, substance abuse, injury and violence, and environmental quality. Being alone can, quite literally, kill us.

We need community, we crave community, we were literally created in the image of God to be in community. But here’s the kicker, we’re human, so we’re kind of bad at it a lot of times. Sometimes it’s a simple miscommunication that leads to unintentionally hurt feelings, sometimes we’re tired or grumpy or upset, but sometimes we’re just straight up mean. This, sadly, is also affirmed for us by scripture. The bible tells us that God made two people, and they had two children, and one of the children killed the other one. Think about it. The story of Cain and Abel is a story about how there were exactly four people on the entire planet, and even then, they couldn’t get along. Now there are something in the neighborhood of seven point five billion people in the world, is it any wonder that we don’t seem to be very good at this whole living together thing?

It’s hard, being in relationship with each other is super hard! If you’ve ever had a spouse, or a roommate, or a friend, or even a pet, you know that living with another living thing is a constant dance of compromise. And yet, here’s the good news. I tell this to every couple whose wedding I officiate, and its true not just in marriages but in all sorts of relationships, “for where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” What this means is God does not leave us to figure out this whole being in community thing on our own. We need community, God knows we need community, God created us to need community, and so God gave us Jesus, because God also knew that, left to our own devices, we were totally going to screw up this whole live together in community thing.

This section of Matthew comes from one of the long speeches of Jesus known as the “Community Discourse,” because it is Jesus’ teachings about how the disciples and other Jesus followers are to live together. There is an inward focus to this section. Like I mentioned in the sermon last week, these teachings are not about setting parameters for how people are to enter into the community of Christ followers, they are rules for governing the behavior of those already counted as part of the community. The commentaries stress that these are not general rules for personal relationships, but are church rules for helping grow Christian congregational life. This section of Matthew is basically Jesus saying, OK, once I’m gone, you all are going to have to play nice with each other. And I know you’re totally going to screw it up. Peter’s going to get all high and mighty, and Paul’s going to think Peter’s a jerk, and Thomas is just going to wander off on his own, and James and John are going to be, well, James and John. So before all that happens, let me give you some rules for how to deal with the conflicts that are inevitably going to take place. So often the point of this section of Matthew becomes about how best to call someone else out on their sin, how best to get to treat someone “as a Gentile and a tax collector.” But remember what Jesus did with gentiles and tax collectors? He broke bread with them, taught them, healed them, and was in relationship with him. The point of this section of Matthew is to draw us into relationship. Instead of walking away when someone hurts us, this passage calls us to seek reconciliation. To go to someone first alone, to see if there was a misunderstanding. And then if that doesn’t work, go with a few others. And then if that still doesn’t work, bring in someone with some authority. And then, if that still doesn’t work, let them be “as a gentile and a tax collector.” Which, if we follow in the manner of Jesus, means they may not be a part of the community any longer, we may not necessarily associate with them regularly, but we still have to care about them.

Now, I have to tell you a coincidence this week that I just found amazing. One of the things I love about being a lectionary preacher is the way texts I would not necessarily have chosen end up weaving together perfectly with the life of the church. One of the projects the council has taken on this year is updating our congregational constitution. You may not have even known we have a church constitution, but we do. And as a person who loves policy, I’ve been geeking out since July getting to work on it. And mark your calendars now, because if all goes according to schedule, the updated constitution will be ready for congregational review and vote at the annual meeting in February. So that’s definitely going to be a can’t miss meeting.

But anyway, after I finished my Bible study notes for this week, I switched to the next task on my list, which was working on chapter eight of the church constitution, which deals with church membership. And our Trinity church constitution referred to 20.41.02 of the ELCA Constitution, which read “Discipline for an offense shall be administered consistent with the procedure which Christ instructed his disciples to follow (Matthew 18:15–17).” And I just about laughed out loud, because leave it to the Holy Spirit that the week I would be working on that section of the Constitution, I would also find myself preaching on the very section of Matthew which that section was based on.

This section of our constitution addresses what to do if the congregation needs to end someone’s membership. Section 20.41 I referred to earlier is just shy of three pages single-spaced, which tells you how seriously we as a church take this issue. But there are times when the actions of an individual are so damaging to a congregation or its ministry, that for the health and safety of the rest of the congregation, a person has to be asked to leave. It’s a constant refrain for me, grace is not the same as niceness. If someone is bullying or abusing another person, sometimes the most grace-ful thing we can do as people of God is say, that is not behavior that is tolerated here. And the ELCA has a three-page manual on how to do that. But what really got me is the last line. Section 8.05 from our congregational constitution, you can look it up if you want, after explaining the reason someone’s membership could be terminated, reads “Such persons who have been removed from the roll of members shall remain persons for whom the church has a continuing pastoral concern.” My friends, THAT is grace. Imagine if we as a world lived up to the standard that we have set for ourselves as a church. Grace is, at this point in time, we cannot be in relationship together. Something about us, about the way we are together, maybe you or maybe me, is dangerous and detrimental to this place and these people. And because of this conflict, we need to be apart. But even though this can no longer be a place for you, you are still a person who is our brother or sister in Christ, and this community still has concern and responsibilities for you. That is grace and that is the power of authentic Christian community. It gives us the power and the will and the courage, and most importantly the strength to be neither a bully nor a doormat, but to stand firm in relationships, to keep offering grace and forgiveness to ourselves and to others, and to keep seeking relationship again and again.

Yes, this is hard. This is super hard. It’s hard and it’s totally counter-cultural and counter-intuitive. Jesus knows forgiving and asking for forgiveness is hard, calling out sin is hard, and taking space when it is necessary is hard. We’d rather be nice, but nice is not grace. Jesus knows it is hard, and that’s why he promised that when two or three are gathered, he would be with us. That word “gathered” is key. He didn’t say, when two or three agree. In verse nineteen he did say agree, in nineteen he said, when two agree it will be done for you. But in verse twenty, he only said “when two or three are gathered…I am there among them.” Which means, Jesus is with us regardless of whether we agree or not. Jesus is with us. When we are speaking up against systems of injustice, Jesus is with us. When we are asking forgiveness from someone we’ve hurt, Jesus is with us. When someone has hurt us, Jesus is with us. Jesus is here, and everywhere else where two or three are gathered in his name. That is the great blessing and the enormous challenge of this text. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Conversation Points for Matthew 18:15-20

Study Format:
1. Read passage aloud. What did you notice in the reading? What words or phrase caught your attention?
2. Read passage aloud a second time. What questions would you ask the text?
3. Read passage aloud a third time. What do you hear God calling you to do or be in response to this text?

Interesting Ideas to Consider:
• Chapter 18 is the fourth of the five long speeches of Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel. Commonly thought of as the “Community Discourse,” chapter 18 forms the parallel to the Missionary Discourse in chapter 10. While the Missionary Discourse was directed at how the disciples were to live in the world, the Community Discourse was for how the disciples were to live with each other.
• These are not general rules for personal relationships, but are church rules for helping grow Christian congregational life. As an example, in the ELCA Churchwide Constitution, in the section on the disciplinary process for members, it references Matthew 18:15-17. “20.41.02. Discipline for an offense shall be administered consistent with the procedure which Christ instructed his disciples to follow (Matthew 18:15–17), proceeding through these successive steps, as necessary…”
• The Greek translated as “member” is adelphos, which in other places is translated as “brother.” V. 17’s reference to the church (ekklesia) makes “member” probably the proper translation here, but it does obscure the family nature of the church in Matthew’s understanding.
• “Against you” in not present in several of the more well regarded manuscripts. Good arguments can be made both for and against its inclusion. Without it, then the emphasis is on sin in general, and a concerned Christian’s role in intervening. With it, then the focus is on what to do in personal offense. Though sin is a communal concern, such communal concern is no reason to disregard the feelings of the accused. Thus the sensitive approach of addressing the accused privately.
• The taking of two “witnesses” in v. 16 is in line with the long-held Jewish tradition outlined in Deuteronomy 19:15: “A single witness shall not suffice to convict a person of any crime or wrongdoing in connection with any offence that may be committed. Only on the evidence of two or three witnesses shall a charge be sustained.”
• “Church” here specifically refers to the local congregation, and not the wider body of believers. This is probably a section focused directly on Matthew’s community, similar to the way our own church constitution and bylaws function.

Works Sourced:
Boring, M. Eugene. “The Gospel of Matthew.” The New Interpreter’s Bible Volume VIII. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1995.

God's Metrics: A Sermon on Matthew 16:21-28

Anyone else feel like the text this week is a little bit of scriptural whiplash? Just last week, in the verses immediately preceding these ones, Jesus told Peter, “you are the Rock, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.” And here, Jesus says to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan”? That was a quick transition!

Honestly, quick transitions like this is one of the reasons I love Peter as a model of faith. He’s just so stinking relatable! One minute Peter totally gets it, he’s flying high, he’s got Jesus and faith and being a super guy all figured out, and the next minute he’s wrong-headedly blundering in the wrong direction. Keep your pious, perfect, never-faltering faith heroes for yourself, Peter is a guy I get.

It’s also worth remembering that we have an advantage on Peter, knowing the end of the story. That Jesus suffered, died, and was raised is the central point of our faith. We call it Easter and we celebrate it every year. Stores sell marshmallows shaped like chicks and bunnies to help you remember. But for Peter, this is the first time he’s heard of this whole death and resurrection plan. Put yourself in Peter’s shoes, if someone you loved and respected, someone who you thought was the savior of the world, came up to you and said, I’m going to suffer and be killed, but then I’m going to rise from the dead,” what do you think your initial response would be? Peter’s rebuke is also a prayer, a plea to God on Jesus’ behalf. “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.”

What Peter wanted was for Jesus to be who Jesus had said he was going to be, whom Peter had just confessed Jesus to be, the Messiah, the Son of the living God. Peter and Jesus had the same goal in mind. The problem wasn’t Peter’s intentions; the problem was how that intention played out in the world. Peter and Jesus both wanted Jesus’ mission on earth to succeed, they just had very different understandings of what success look like.

Before we get too far into this, I want to pause for one moment for a brief bit of introduction. Our reading for this morning started “from that time on,” indicating a shift in focus. Up until this point, Jesus’ ministry was a public one, traveling around Galilee and the surround regions preaching, teaching, and healing crowds. With this reading, the ministry takes a radical shift. From here until chapter twenty, so for us the month of September, Jesus is speaking only to the disciples. There are some mentions of crowds but they are only in the periphery, the teachings are for the disciples alone. It is important to make this distinction, because the teachings Jesus gives in the next couple of weeks are going to be tough. Jesus has some hard words for his disciples about how they, how we, are to live in the world. So we need to remember that this is insider knowledge. These are not restrictions Jesus put up for those who want to become his followers; these are the lofty expectations of those who already are his followers.

For Peter, and for most if not all of those who followed Jesus, being the Messiah meant Jesus was preparing to ride into Jerusalem with a conquering army to repel the Roman invaders and restart a new Kingdom of Israel in the model of King David. It was a vision of glory and power, which, if the disciples played their cards right, would also include some of them in positions of power and authority in the newly coming ruling elite. Wealth, power, glory, military might, these are the very human idea of Messiahship that Peter and the others were expecting. But Jesus, the king born of an unwed mother, whose companions were fishermen and tax collectors, who came from the backwaters of Galilee, Jesus knew that Messiahship was a very different endeavor. Being the savior of the world was not about military might or worldly power. The empire that would fall was not Rome, but the reign of death itself. Success, Jesus knew, was to be found in a cross, the paradoxical truth that strength dwells in weakness and something has to die in order for something else to live.

And I relate to Peter because while I know this intellectually, while I know that God’s strength is displayed in Christ’s weakness, and that life is found only through death. While I know intellectually that God’s ways are not our ways, I find that I still struggle to understand what that means. And it takes readings like this, and the conversations and events that happen while I’m dwelling on these readings, to help me reorient my focus again.

For example, this week I was thinking about what success looks like as a church. Last week, I had the bishop over to my home for lunch between our service and the installation. We were sitting on the couch talking, and he remarked again about how excited the synod is about all of the things we are doing as a congregation, the ways we are committed to living out our faith in the world. “I’m glad to hear that,” I remarked, “I just wish we were growing.” He and I talked a little bit about why our outreach efforts haven’t seemed to have much effect on our worshiping community, and he encouraged me that the synod believes that the work we are doing in this place matters. His words were encouraging, but the fact is no small part of my salary comes from the ELCA, and while the ELCA continues to affirm their faith in us, I still struggle with doubt around wondering if I am deserving of their money. If the trendline on our worship attendance tells the story, I wonder if I’m doing enough.

So I was feeling that over the weekend. But then this week a couple of things happened that left me realizing that it’s possible that our worship attendance trendline is not the story, and that measure I had placed on success may not be God’s measure of success.

The first thing happened in a conversation with Teresa. I’d agreed to go somewhere with a Co-op member for moral support, and since she was under Teresa’s caseload, as a professional courtesy, I wanted to let Teresa know what I was doing. We were standing in the hallway chatting, and I told her what I was doing. “I don’t need anything from you on this,” I told her. “I just wanted to keep you in the loop, since she’s one of yours.” Teresa stopped me, “she came to you on this one, she’s not just one of mine, she’s also one of yours.”

She’s one of mine. I hadn’t thought of it this way before, but Teresa was right. I am this woman’s pastor, just as much as I am your pastor. She’s probably not ever going to come to church on a Sunday. I’ve invited her, but organ music just isn’t her jam. Which I get, one of the reason I think denominations are helpful and important is because people need different styles of worship to connect with God. There are plenty of congregations I’ve visited who’s mission’s I’ve loved, that I haven’t wanted to attend regularly, because their style of worship didn’t speak to me. That’s not a knock on them or me, it’s just that how I connect with God is different than that. But back to the point, just because she doesn’t come to worship on Sundays, and thus isn’t changing our worship attendance trendline, doesn’t mean that she isn’t a part of our congregation, isn’t encountering the living God through us and through this community. She is a part of the expanding kingdom of God in this place. It isn’t success that shows up in metrics, but it is success, it is a story of outreach that needs to be told. And I’m grateful that Teresa could help me see that.

The other thing happened while Wayne and I were outside with a bunch of kids for Freeze Pop Tuesday, deep in the midst of chaos as usual. I love Freeze Pop Tuesday, but, again, I wonder if it’s really making a difference. Does it matter that once a week I send a bunch of kids home with a high-fructose corn syrup induced sugar high? Sure we gave out fifty freeze pops last week, but what does that matter in the grand scheme of things? I was pondering these things again on Tuesday, while all around me kids were yelling, coloring with chalk, throwing beanbags at each other, and generally having a grand time. When suddenly, a dog showed up at the cooler, as if asking for a freeze pop. This was not, I will add, the dog that came to worship last summer. This was a new dog, a small, short-haired, white thing, very friendly. She came bounding right up in the middle of us, distracting the kids from their chaos as I tried to figure out who’s dog it was and what exactly I was supposed to do with our new four-legged friend, on top of the fifteen or so kids pegging beanbags at each other. After a few minutes, much to my great relief, the neighbor across the street came out to collect his wayward pet. We chatted for a bit, and as he turned to leave he off-handedly mentioned. “By the way, thanks for all you guys have done with the kids this summer. It’s great to see them having somewhere to go.”

These kids have somewhere to go. That’s success. Do I wish they’d not just come and eat pizza, but stayed for family camp. Yes, I wish that, but they came, that’s a start. Do I wish they’d come to worship, bring their parents, and become involved, growing our membership, yeah, I do. But that’s what I want. That’s not necessarily the mark of success. Success, the across-the-street neighbor reminded me, is this group of kids knows that this is a place where they are welcome and accepted. Where we may ask them not to throw tomatoes at each other, but we’ll welcome them back even if they do, and we’ll help them clean them up again, even offer to send them home with fresh tomatoes. These kids may not come through the door of the church yet, but they are still our kids. They are still the expanding kingdom of God in this place. And I’m grateful to the neighbor for reminding me of that.

This October we will celebrate the five-hundredth anniversary of the Reformation. But we also seem to be standing on the edge of a new reformation. The church as we know it is changing, dear people. And much like what happened at the time of Luther, I think there is good reason to believe that the church of twenty or maybe even only ten years from now will look nothing like the church of today. And in this world of shifting priorities, the identifiers of what it meant to be thriving and relevant Christian community may no longer be what they once were. But here’s what this passage, and the life of Peter, promise us. God’s ways are not our ways. God’s vision of success does not match ours. Some things we hold dear may have to die so that other things can live. But in the amazing, inexplicable paradox of faith, it is in losing that we will find ourselves, and in dying that new life takes hold. The experience of Peter shows us that this transition is a painful, frightening, and uncomfortable journey. But it also shows us that the rewards are more than we ever imagined. Dear friends in Christ, it is truly a great time to be the church. Amen.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Conversation Points for Matthew 16:21-28

Study Format:
1. Read passage aloud. What did you notice in the reading? What words or phrase caught your attention?
2. Read passage aloud a second time. What questions would you ask the text?
3. Read passage aloud a third time. What do you hear God calling you to do or be in response to this text?

Interesting Ideas to Consider:
• This is the first of Jesus’ four predictions of his upcoming death (16:21-23; 17:22-23; 20:17-19; 26:2). Both Matthew and Luke keep these predictions from the Markan tradition, though only Matthew adds the fourth.
• “From that time on” (apo tote) in v. 21 marks the turning point in Matthew’s Gospel. Up to this point, Jesus’ ministry was a public one, preaching, teaching, and healing in the Galilee region. From here until 20:34, Jesus’ ministry shifts inward to teaching only the disciples. Chapter 21 is the triumphal entry into Jerusalem and the beginning of the passion narrative.
• 17:22 makes it clear that these passion predictions are about God handing Jesus over to a group of people, not one group of people handing Jesus over to another to be killed. God is the primary actor in Jesus’ impending death.
• A single definite article begins the list of elders, high priests, and scribes that Jesus said he was being handed over to, making the Jewish leadership a united front. It is not the Jewish people whom Jesus is handed over to, but the religious leadership.
• Both the verb for “be killed” and “be raised” are in the passive voice, what is often called the “divine passive.” This is to be clear that Jesus did not rise on his own, but his resurrection was an act of God.
• In v. 22, “took him aside” is probably better translated as “took hold of,” as in “Peter took hold of Jesus [by the arm]…” Peter’s “rebuke” to Jesus uses prayer-like words. In light of Jesus’ reference to God’s thoughts versus human thoughts, it can be read as a prayer. The problem is that Peter’s idea of success is a human one, and is different than God’s. In Peter’s view, Jesus’ success cannot include his suffering and death. But in Jesus’ perspective, that is the definition of success.
• “Get behind me, Satan” (v. 23) recognizes the temptation for Jesus to view his mission by human criteria of success rather than by God’s. The verb for “get” is the same as the verb for “go” in Jesus’ temptation by the devil in 4:10.
• In this story in Mark’s gospel, Jesus began to address the crowd at v. 24. Matthew changed that to focus Jesus’ teachings directly on the meaning of discipleship for those who are already in the community. These words are not an invitation to discipleship for outsiders, they are a challenge for insiders. The word “become” is a poor translation of the Greek, the NIV translation is better. Following Jesus is a matter of will, there is an aspect of decision, but not the initial decision. It’s the difference between justification (Jesus chose/saves us) and sanctification (how we live into that promise) that we’ve talked about before.
• V. 28 could mean a lot of different things. The most likely is that Matthew was literally referring to the end of time, which he thought was coming very soon. Like within the next days, months, or definitely years. It is one of the problems Paul addressed in his writings, when followers started dying of old age and Jesus had not yet returned.
• The point of this scene is to set the fact that the death of Jesus was not an accident, but was part of the divine plan. Jesus was not a victim; he was a knowing and willing participant.
• This call for discipleship is neither self-fulfillment nor meaningless self-denial. Rather it is a lack of focus on self at all.
• The call to discipleship is based on faith in Christ and confidence in future victory. It is not based on a reasonable conclusion about the current status, but the faith that something which already happened is changing things for the better.
• The call to discipleship happens in community.
• Discipleship is not a destination, it is a journey of learning.

Works Sourced:
Boring, M. Eugene. “The Gospel of Matthew.” The New Interpreter’s Bible Volume VIII. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1995.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Conversation Points for Matthew 16:13-20

Study Format:
1. Read passage aloud. What did you notice in the reading? What words or phrase caught your attention?
2. Read passage aloud a second time. What questions would you ask the text?
3. Read passage aloud a third time. What do you hear God calling you to do or be in response to this text?

Interesting Ideas to Consider:
• Matthew sets this exchange between Jesus and Peter at Caesarea Philippi. Mark had it on the road on the way to Caesarea Philippi and Luke dropped the location entirely, so we can assume that the location is once again more theological than geographical. Caesarea Philippi twenty miles north of the Sea of Galilee, was a city with rich nationalistic and religious associations, both Jewish and pagan. In ancient times, it was a site of a Baal cultic center. Under Grecian authority had been called Paneas because it housed a worship site for the Greek god Pan. Herod the Great renamed the city after he built a temple to Caesar Augustus there. After Herod the Great’s death, his son Philip enlarged the town and renamed it after Tiberius Caesar and himself, thus the name at the time of Jesus of Caesarea Philippi. During the Jewish-Roman war of 66-70 (when the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed), Caesarea was a recreation spot for the Roman general Vespasian (Vespasian began the siege of Jerusalem which led to the destruction of the Temple, then left his son Titus in charge after Vespasian became emperor). Caesarea remained a prime location for Titus, who returned there after the fall of Jerusalem, where according to the ancient historian Josephus, he had several Jewish revolutionaries thrown to wild animals. By setting the scene in Caesarea Philippi, Matthew places Jesus’ confession as the Messiah right in the heart of the Roman occupation.
• Jesus’ question to the disciples was not because he didn’t know what people thought of him, it was to make clear the difference between the disciples’ knowledge of Jesus and others’ knowledge of Jesus. Unlike in Mark, where Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Messiah is the first time Jesus was correctly identified, in Matthew, Jesus had already identified himself in Christological terms before. In Matthew, this scene serves to mark the separation between the new community of Jesus followers from the old community which reject him.
• However, it cannot be said based on these responses that the people had a low view of Jesus. The prophets listed—John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah, etc.—were not just prophets, but very highly regarded prophets. Jesus called himself a prophet, so the problem is not identifying Jesus as a prophet, but that such identification does not go far enough.
• In v. 17, Jesus’ plural address to all the disciples focuses to a singular address just to Peter. Peter holds a unique role in Matthew’s Gospel as both the spokesperson for all the disciples and a representative of all Christians, but also as the founder of the new community. Peter’s role as founder is not based on his superior insight or achievements, but on what Jesus has revealed to him. Peter, with his strengths and weaknesses, is a representative of Christian faith.
• The name “Peter” comes from the Greek petros, meaning “stone” or “rock.” The English translation of v. 18, “you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church,” misses the word play in the sentence by inserting the common sounding name Peter. There is no evidence of Peter being a common name before this point. The Greek reads more like “you are Rocky (petros), and on this rock (petra) I will build my church.” It is unclear whether this nickname is new to Simon here, or if is given new importance. Up to this point, only the narrator had used it.
• Though Peter is the foundation, Jesus is still the builder. The word translated “build” (oikodomeo) also appears in relation to the Temple in 27:40 (‘You who would destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself! If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross.’)
• The word “church” (ekklesia) appears only here in v. 18 and in 18:17 (“If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax-collector”). In Greek, ekklesia was used in reference to the local political assembly. Matthew used it to mean the renewed people of God.
• Hades is the realm of the dead, not a place of punishment. The word translated “overcome” has the sense of “be stronger than.” So the point is partially that the church will never die. Hades may also refer to the underworld where evil came from. So there is also the sense that the church will never be destroyed by evil. The point is not triumphalistic, that the church is battering down the gates of Hades. The two kingdoms, the church and Hades, stand apart from each other and struggle between each other until Christ comes again, but evil will never prevail.
• The reference to Peter holding the keys in v. 19 is not the popular piety image of Peter as the guard to the gates of heaven. Peter’s role is not to decide who gets into heaven someday, it is a current task. The holder of the keys is the chief teacher, who loosens by teaching. The language of binding and loosing is rabbinic terminology for teaching, having the authority to interpret and apply scripture. Jesus gives this authority, to teach in his name and to apply those teachings, to Peter, and thus to the whole church.

Works Sourced:
Boring, M. Eugene. “The Gospel of Matthew.” The New Interpreter’s Bible Volume VIII. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1995.