Tuesday, September 20, 2011

subvert the paradigm


A sermon on:
Matthew 20: 1-16

Last week when driving I saw an interesting bumper sticker: “subvert the dominant paradigm.” Now, for some reason this bumper sticker actually stuck. You see we all view life through a particular lens, and we all view God through a particular lens, and if that lens isn’t right, then our lives will necessarily be wrong. And what Christian formation is about, more than anything, is acquiring the right lens so that we see things as they really are. And so here’s the question I’d like to pose this morning. What’s the paradigm, or the lens, through which we’re viewing our relationship with God?

Because there is a dominant religious paradigm, which has its own assumptions about God, about ourselves, and about what it means to follow Jesus. And that dominant paradigm goes something like this. “We get what we deserve. If we’re good, God will reward us. Faithfulness might not be fun, but our God is fair, and he’s going to reward us for our service.” And so whenever we say things like, “I’ve already done my good deed for the day,” or “Why would God let this happen, I haven’t done anything wrong,” that’s the dominant religious paradigm slipping out where God’s seen as the boss, we’re the workers, and payment is rewarded on the basis of merit.

Now believe it or not, this has actually been the dominant religious paradigm since the time of Jesus, and Jesus’ intention in telling today’s parable was to subvert that paradigm. And in particular, the people Jesus had the most beef with were the Pharisees, because instead helping people see God and themselves as they really were, the Pharisees made people feel bad for not being “religious enough.” You see the Pharisees followed the law to a T, but did so in a way that left them joyless and judgmental. And Jesus’ message to the Pharisees, more than anything, was that they didn’t see things as they really were – that the dominant paradigm they upheld reflected the kingdom of the world, not the kingdom of heaven.

And so that’s why Jesus told this parable about the landowner and vineyard workers – to subvert the dominant paradigm and show us what God’s Kingdom’s really like. It’s not a lesson in economics, nor is it an allegory that asks us to examine who we are in this parable. No, it’s a call to examine our assumptions about God, about ourselves, and about what it means to follow Jesus. And so here’s the question we need to consider – where is Jesus asking us to think differently about God?

Well first, Jesus wants us to understand that working in God’s vineyard isn’t a chore – it’s the opportunity of a lifetime. The call of God, it moves us away from a life of idleness and toward a life of purpose and meaning. A life spent working in God’s vineyard is its own reward. In other words, what gives life purpose, what gives life meaning, is our decision to partner with God to advance His Kingdom wherever we happen to be – at work, at home, at a bar, on vacation – it doesn’t matter because the vineyard of God is everywhere. And working in that vineyard – that, Jesus says, is what gives life purpose and meaning. As Kathryn Blanchard puts it, “The workers must recognize the opportunity to work in the vineyard as a gift in itself. There is no room for human pride, since one’s only choice is to answer the call … or to stand idle and waste one’s life.” In other words, the call to work in God’s vineyard isn’t a chore. It’s the reason God created us in the first place.

Second, Jesus wants us to understand that God isn’t a distant and cold hearted book-keeper – that God isn’t sitting back and keeping score. On the contrary, like a shepherd looking for lost sheep, God’s refuses to rest until he’s found every last potential worker that’s still standing idle. Because notice, the landowner in the parable is always searching – 6 o’clock, 9 o’clock, noon, three o’clock, 5 PM – the second he gets one group of workers settled, he leaves again to start looking for more. And this, Jesus says, is exactly what God’s like. God takes the initiative to find us. He’s always looking to draw people in. It breaks His heart to see people standing idle.

What’s the paradigm through which we’re viewing our relationship with God? You see, today we have a baptism. We’re going to baptize Reid into the Christian life, and each one of us will make a vow to do all we can help Reid grow up into a mature Christian – to teach Reid the truth of who God really us, and to teach him the joy of working in God’s vineyard with us. But at the same time, we’ll also renew our own baptismal covenant; we’ll remind ourselves of what that right lens is, of what it means to see things as they really are. And according to Jesus’ parable, there are really only two lenses. Either we know that life and salvation are a gift and that God’s blessed us well beyond what we deserve, or we compare ourselves to everyone else and measure our lives against theirs. We’re either grateful or we’re envious. We’re either God’s sons or we’re his servants. God’s either our Father or he’s our foreman. Paul’s either right, and all things belong to us because we belong to Christ– “co-heirs” as he puts it – or we’re contract workers slaving away in a vineyard to eke out a daily wage. And so what’s our paradigm?

CS Lewis was once asked by a group of his colleagues at Oxford about the uniqueness of Christianity. “All religions present ethical challenges. Other religions have stories of virgin births and miracles and gods walking the earth. And so what,” they sneered, “makes Christianity any different?” “What makes Christianity different?” Lewis asked rhetorically before answering their question. “Grace.”

The dominant religious paradigm is about merit. God’s the boss, we’re the workers, and payment is rewarded on the basis of merit. But Christianity, Christianity is about grace – about how each and every one of us is made in the image of God, about how God’s generosity is beyond anything we could ever imagine, and about how there’s nothing we could ever do to deserve God’s generosity but that it comes to us anyway as a gift. Christianity is about grace. How different would our lives be – how different would our world be – if we only lived from that paradigm?

At so here’s what I’d like to say in closing. At the end of today’s parable, the landowner asks an interesting question – he says, “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?” Well, in the context of Matthew’s Gospel, this question’s actually meant to point to another parable Jesus tells about a vineyard. And in that parable, which occurs only one chapter later, the landowner sends his son into the vineyard and when the workers see the landowner’s son they seize him, throw him out of the vineyard and kill him. “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?” That’s the landowner’s question. And at the heart of our faith is the belief that God does not stand removed, but that He chose to enter the vineyard himself in the person of Jesus Christ, that it cost him his life, and that, on the cross, he became the last so that we could become the first.

May that be the paradigm – the lens – through which we view our relationship with God. Because to the extent that it is, we’re going to get really serious about bringing more people into the vineyard with us, rejoicing that in the shadow of the cross, we all stand together as equals – sons and daughters of God, and co-heirs with Christ. Is Jesus’ work in the vineyard with us and for us the primary lens through which we’re viewing our relationship with God? Because if not, it’s time to subvert the paradigm.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

remembering 9-11



Peter came and said to Jesus, "Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?" Jesus said to him, "Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.

I want to begin by introducing myself and saying what a pleasure it is to be with you this morning at Emmanuel. My name is John Newton, and I serve as the Bishop’s Canon for Lifelong Christian Formation. And it’s truly an honor to be with you this morning – and to preach the Gospel on this day in particular, as the attacks of September 11th, 2001 are no doubt weighing on our hearts.

Ten years ago to the day, 19 hijackers took control of four commercial airliners. Both towers of the World Trade Center were destroyed. The third plane crashed into the Pentagon, and the fourth on a farm in Pennsylvania after a few passengers heroically rebelled. In total, 2,996 people died in this horrific event that we now know as 9/11.

I don’t know what you remember about that day – what you were doing when you heard the news or what you felt as you processed the experience. But I do wonder what we’ve chosen to remember – the 411 ER workers who died trying to save others, or perhaps the churches that overflowed the following Sunday morning – maybe that’s what we remember. Or perhaps we just remember the darker emotions – our desire for revenge, for whoever did this to pay. I remember feeling that emotion quite well.

You see whatever 9/11 was to us personally, there’s something it was to us all – a clear and undeniable reminder that all is not right in this world. We were not meant to live in a world where people crash planes into buildings. We were not meant to live in a world where wildfires destroy our homes. We were not meant to live in a world that hurts, injures and violates us. And yet we do. That is exactly the world in which we find ourselves.

And that, more than anything, is what 9/11 is to me – a reminder that all is not well in the world; it’s a reminder that we’ve been hurt, that we’re scared, and that we’re desperate for Someone to fix things. And it matters little what makes us feel scared and hurt – a terrorist, a parent, a friend, a spouse, a child, our divorce, the media, our mortality, our health, the wildfires, politics, the economy, our loneliness or our dwindling IRA – what’s significant is that we know what it is to feel broken and to long for wholeness. Each one of us has been hurt. Injured. Violated. Wronged. And with this experience of being wronged comes, if only subconsciously, a desire for revenge – for whoever did this to pay.

Well, it’s this desire we have for revenge – this idea we have that to fix pain we need to dish out more pain, that to fix hate we have to out-hate the haters – that Jesus addresses in today’s Gospel. And what Jesus would have us understand – the whole point of the parable – is that there are only two ways to respond to the hurt and pain we experience in this life. There’s the way of revenge and the way of forgiveness. In other words, to live in a world where all is not well means that it’s a guarantee that we’ll get hurt, injured, violated and be wronged. And when that happens, Jesus says we’ve only got two options. We can absorb the pain. Or, we can return it. We can pray to the Judge or we can play the judge. We can choose forgiveness or we can choose revenge.

Now, there’s something we just need to name. Our world has chosen the way of revenge. “Getting even” – that, we think, is how we’re going to fix things. A desire for revenge was behind the attacks of September 11th, and, at least partially, behind our nation’s response to those attacks. It’s also present in every divorce, every cold shoulder, and every uncharitable word. And it’s this desire for revenge, Jesus says in today’s parable, that is absurd – that is absolutely absurd from the perspective of God.

And so let’s take a quick look at Jesus’ parable, which Jesus tells to respond to Peter’s question about forgiveness. Because what Peter wants to know – isn’t that what we all want to know? The attacks of September 11th – do we really need to forgive whoever did that? I mean, at what point do we stop forgiving? When is enough, enough?

Well, to respond to this Jesus tells a story about a slave. We’ll call him John. And John owed the king 10,000 talents. Now, 1 talent was about 7 years’ wages in Jesus’ day, and so 10,000 talents, if you do the math, is about 3.5 billion dollars. And so when John can’t pay his 3.5 billion dollar debt, the King forgives the debt out of sheer pity – because the King is good. Now, justice demanded that John and his family be sold. But the King in Jesus’ parable loves mercy, and so he releases John. Well, John then remembers that his buddy Frank owes him 100 bucks, and when Frank can’t come up with the money, John seizes him by the throat and throws him into prison.

Now, the entire scenario is obviously absurd. Who, after being forgiven a 3.5 billion dollar debt, would ever ruin another person’s life over 100 dollars? But here’s what I think Jesus is trying to say. We would. And we do. That from God’s perspective, we look just like John whenever we hold onto our anger, to our grudges, or to any other desire we have for someone else to pay.

You see the point of Jesus’ parable is that each one of us has had a massive moral debt cleared, and that rather than receiving the justice we deserve, we receive the mercy we don’t. What Jesus is trying to show Peter is that in light of the unmerited pity he’s been shown from the King of heaven, His question about forgiveness doesn’t make sense – that compared to the debt he’s been forgiven by God, Peter is essentially owed nothing.

Today we as a nation we remember 9/11 – but there’s always the question of what we’ll choose to remember, of what we will choose to place at the forefront of our minds as we acknowledge that we’ve been hurt, that we’re scared, and that we are desperate for Someone to fix things. And here is what I believe faithfulness to the Christian Gospel demands – that the first thing we remember about the events of 9/11 is the King in Jesus’ parable.

You see the entire point of Jesus’ parable is that it’s the King that absorbs an enormous loss. More than anyone else, it is the King that is hurt, injured, violated and wronged. After all, when the King forgives the debt, that debt doesn’t just disappear, and the King’s forgiveness doesn’t come cheap. No, forgiveness comes with a price tag, and it’s only the King – who must absorb the entire debt himself – that will ever fully understand that cost.

What will we choose to remember on this tenth anniversary of 9/11? My prayer for we who call ourselves Christian is that at the center of our mind will be the King of Creation nailed to the cross – paying the entire debt of sinful humanity himself.

As John Ortberg put it, “On the cross, the entire weight of the un-payable debt owed by sinful humanity would fall on Jesus. He would pay it all. This is why the cross is at the heart of Christianity. It shows us the heart of God. He chooses to pay the debt we never could. He longs to forgive.” In other words, the cross is that place where Jesus took the collective hurt, injury and wrongness of the entire world head on. On the cross Jesus absorbed all of it. The pain of the victims. The pain of their families. The pain of the terrorists. And the pain of their families. The pain of the people who lost their homes in the wildfires this week. The collective pain of humanity. On the cross, Jesus absorbed all of it. And Jesus invites us, his disciples, to do is the same.

You see returning the pain inflicted on us – or what some call revenge – that’s what cowards do. But absorbing the pain of the world with Jesus and for Jesus – that’s what disciples do.

And so let me end by saying this. It is a wonderful and Godly thing to remember the events of September 11, 2001. We need to remember. But as disciples of Jesus Christ, we are called to remember all things in light of the coming reign of God. And so as you go out into the world this week, here’s what I hope you’ll remember.

First, remember the cross. 9/11 in particular and all violence in general, is first and foremost an offense against God. We all owe a massive debt, and on the cross Jesus Christ absorbed all of it.

Second, remember those who gave their lives to save others, and who did so willingly, and remember the many smaller sacrifices people made in the weeks that followed. God created us to pour out our lives to serve other people. We need to remember and celebrate the times we do that well.

Third, remember that Jesus commands us to pray for our enemies – for those who wish us harm – and that in praying for us on the cross Jesus was praying for his enemies, for it is we who crucified Him. The cross reconciled us to God. Jesus intends us to be reconciled to our enemies.

Finally, and this is by far the most important – remember that all pain and death and disease and decay and terrorism and revenge will all come to a decisive end when the Kingdom of God arrives in its fullness. Christ had died, Christ has risen, and Christ will come again. And when that happens, Jesus will bring with Him the world we were made to live in. But in the meantime, it matters tremendously how we live, how we treat people, and whether or not we choose to forgive the people that hurt us.

Let us pray. O God, the Father of all, whose Son commanded us to love our enemies: Lead them and us from prejudice to truth; deliver them and us from hatred, cruelty and revenge; and in your good time enable us all to stand reconciled before you, through Jesus Christ our Lord. AMEN.