Wednesday, September 28, 2011

The Beauty of Submission

"....submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ." - Ephesians 5:21

            Submission has become sort of a dirty word in our culture.  We often associate it with phrases like "being beaten into submission".  In other words, submission is seen as something that is forced on a weak person or group by a more powerful person or group.  One gender, race, or group is told they must submit to another.  Submission is seen as synonymous with oppression and injustice or at the very least, support of the status quo. 
            But the truth is that submission, when it is rightly understood not as something forced upon us but as a willful choice to put another's needs ahead of our own, is an essential part of every relationship.  Think about the relationships in your own life.  They are all built, to varying degrees, upon mutual submission.  Our best friendships are often those in which we find a person who is often thinking of our needs but for whose sake we also are happy to put our needs aside.  Usually, a friendship in which one person is always submitting and the other is always getting their way doesn't last long as a friendship.  Likewise, the relationship between a husband and wife is a constant give and take with each spouse mutually submitting to the other, each working to accommodate the other. 
            Of course, if the couple has children, they both learn to submit their own needs to the needs of the children.  This is not a submission forced on the parents by a more powerful party.  In fact, the child is too weak and helpless to make anyone do anything.  The parents submission of their own needs to that of the child is not coerced but is done out of love and a recognition of their responsibility as parents.  Of course, as the child grows older, they too must begin to learn that the world does not revolve around them, that there are times when they will need to put someone else's needs ahead of their own.  In fact, it might not be an overstatement to say that the journey from childhood through adolescence to maturity is a movement from self-centeredness to submission. 
            Churches are like any other relationship in this way.  We can only exist as a community as we are willing to submit to one another, putting what we want aside to give others the opportunity to grow in Christ.   This doesn't mean that one person or group should always get their way, expecting others to submit but that we should all be mutually submitting to one another, each giving up something that is important to us so that others might be able to share in this life with Christ.  In fact, just as the mature parent is the one who submits willingly to the needs of a child out of love for the child, the mature Christian is not the one who demands that things been done his or her way.  Instead, Christian maturity is exhibited by those who are willing to submit and sacrifice the most for the sake of another's growth in Christ. 
            Perhaps most telling is that Paul says that this submission to one another is done out of reverence for Christ.  Our submission to one another in the Church is not merely a principle for getting along with one another.  It is a testimony to the love of Christ at work in our lives.  To put it simply: to be a part of a community of faith means things will not always be done as we would like.  However, as we continue to love and participate in that community, submitting our own preferences to the needs of others, we testify to the reality that, as the Church, we are more than merely a collection of individuals.  Instead, we are called to be a community that is faithful image of God's love.  

Monday, September 26, 2011

Rejects Turned Gatekeepers

"There was a master of a house who planted a vineyard and put a fence around it and dug a winepress in it and built a tower..."  
"Ah yes,  Isaiah 5."  thought the religious leaders to themselves.  "We know it well.  Israel is God's vineyard; a vineyard in which God has invested heavily, giving it every chance for success.  God has provided Israel with Torah, a land to live in, and the Temple to nurture its growth much as a vineyard owner might invest in his vineyard."
"...and leased it to tenants and went into another country."  
"Finally, Jesus is recognizing our authority a little bit.  We are those tenants.  God has entrusted his vineyard to us and we are caring for it by making sure radicals like this Jesus don't come in a destroy the harvest which God intends to reap and which we have worked so hard to protect."
"When the season for fruit drew near, he sent his servants to the tenants to get his fruit.  And the tenants took his servants and beat one, killed another, and stoned another."
"What? Wait a second.  We wouldn't do that!  That's how the pagans treat us!"
"Again he sent other servants, more than the first.  And they did the same to them.  Finally, he sent his son to them, saying 'They will respect my son.'"
"Yes, the Messiah will set things right just like David did.  He'll teach those pagans to mistreat servants of God like us!"
 "But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, 'This is the heir.  Come, let us kill him and his inheritance.  And they took him and threw him out of the vineyard and killed him  When therefore, the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?"
"He will put those wretches to a miserable death and let out the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the fruits in their seasons!"  
"Have you never read in the Scriptures:  The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord's doing and it is marvelous in our eyes?"
"Why, of course, we've read Psalm 118.  We've been reciting it all week in preparation for the Passover along with the other Hallel Psalms.  Israel, faithful Israelites like us, are the stone which the nations rejected but which God chose to build into a holy nation.  Why would Jesus bring that up?"
"Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people producing its fruits."
When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard this parable, they perceived that he was speaking about them.  They realized that they were the tenants after all as they had thought and that Jesus was calling himself the Messiah.  Jesus was aligning himself with the long line of prophets, God's servants, that Israel had rejected because he would be rejected like them.  But Jesus believed that God would vindicate him and those faithful Israelites who stood with him, taking the stone which the religious leaders had rejected and making it the chief cornerstone of his kingdom.  Jesus' claim made the chief priests and the Pharisees mad enough that they wanted to arrest him, ironically demonstrating that they were ready to act exactly like the tenants he had just portrayed them to be.  However, they were kept from doing so at the time because they feared the crowds who held that Jesus was a prophet.

In the Church, we also call ourselves the rejected whom the Lord has saved, that is, sinners saved by grace. But the story that Jesus tells turns Psalm 118 upside down.  It shows how easily those who regard themselves as "the stone the builders rejected" can become the very ones doing the rejecting.  Jesus declares that when we treat the grace we have received as mandate to become gatekeepers, then we have failed to bear the fruit he desires and the vineyard will be taken from us and given to those who will produce its fruit.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Taking a Hatchet to the Church

The religious authorities come to Jesus while he is teaching in the Temple and ask him a question we would likely ask in their situation.  "By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?".  Read here:  "Who do you think you are?!"  I say we would ask this in their situation because Jesus has just been in the Temple overturning the tables of money changers  (Matthew 21:12-32). He had done this on top of breaking Sabbath rules and spending time with religious misfits.  What would we say to someone who came in our church and just started ripping up pews and overturning coffee tables?  "Who do you think you are?  What do you think gives you the right to do this?"

Jesus responds by saying that he will answer their question if they will answer a question of his own first.  "John's baptism:  was it of God or merely human?"  The religious leaders are politically calculating in their response.  They know if they say from heaven then they should have believed John but if they say merely human then they will lose popularity with the crowds that regard John as a prophet.  So they answer simply "We don't know."  Jesus refuses to answer their question either.

If the story stopped at this point, then we might assume that Jesus was simply using the question about John to avoid the questioning of the religious leaders.  But interestingly, Jesus doesn't drop his line of questioning when the elders and chief priests demonstrate their captivity to popular opinion.  Instead, he tells a story of a Father who asks two of his children to go to work in his vineyard.  The fist child says no but later goes anyway.  The second child says yes but doesn't go.  Jesus asks "Which of the two did the will of the Father?"   The answer is clear.  The first child did even though they said no initially.  Jesus now brings the conversation back to John the baptist again.
"Truly I say to you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes go into the kingdom of God before you.  For John came to you in the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him.  And even when you saw it, you did not afterward change your minds and believe him."  
What is it that is so important about John's baptism to this question of Jesus' authority?  For one thing, John was always pointing to Jesus.  John's message was about one who was coming after him that was greater than him and who would baptize not with water but with the Holy Spirit and with fire.  Therefore, a large part of what Jesus is saying in Matthew 21 is that if the religious leaders had accepted John's message then they would have accepted Jesus as well.  Jesus says that is why the tax collectors and prostitutes go ahead of the chief priests and elder into Jesus' kingdom; they accepted John's baptism and the religious leaders did not.  However, I think there is a little more going on here.  In Matthew 3, we hear this about John's message and baptism
"But when he saw many of the pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them 'You brood of vipers!  Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?  Bear fruit in keeping with repentance.  And do not presume to say to yourselves , 'We have Abraham as our father, for I tell you God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham.  Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees.  Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire."  
John's message is one of repentance and bearing fruit in keeping with that repentance.  In other words, John is calling people away from the typical ways of doing religion (after all, he is dunking people in a dirty river out in the sticks away from the Temple and the holy city with all of its accepted religious institutions) and calling them to live lives that bear the fruit of God's love.  Furthermore, he says that any tree which does not bear this fruit will be cut down.

What is fascinating about this is that in Matthew 21, right between Jesus' overturning of the tables in the Temple and his conversation with the religious leaders about his authority to do so, is a story about Jesus cursing a tree because it wasn't bearing fruit!  Jesus actually wasn't evading the question of authority at all.  He was pointing back to John's message of repentance because that was the key to understanding why Jesus exercised his authority as he did in the Temple.  The Temple was a religious tree that wasn't bearing the fruit of God's love as God had meant for it too.  So Jesus took the hatchet to it just as John had said he would.

We probably wouldn't be too happy with someone who came into our church and started turning everything upside down but the truth is that this is precisely what Jesus wants to do.  There area all kinds of trees in our churches that aren't bearing the fruit of God's love and Jesus is more than willing to chop them down in order to make room for his house to be a house of prayer once again, for it to be a place where the blind and the lame are healed, a place where children sing "Hosanna to the Son of David!".  Are we prepared to have Jesus take a hatchet to our church if that is what it takes to truly be his disciples?

Monday, September 12, 2011

Kingdom of Grace

A wealthy man comes to Jesus asking what he must do to have eternal life.  After the man says that he has kept all the commandments since his youth, Jesus tells him to go and sell all his possessions, give the money to the poor, and follow Jesus.  This causes the young man to go away sad because he had great wealth.

While the disciples marvel at Jesus' words about the extreme incompatibility between wealth and being his disciples, they also seem to be sort of encouraged by it.  Peter replies in Matthew 19:27, "See, we have left everything and followed you.  What then will we have?"  In other words, Peter recognizes that he has done the very thing that Jesus told this wealthy man to do.  So he wants to know what reward he will receive in return.  And Jesus doesn't rebuke Peter for his thinking here.  He doesn't tell Peter that his focus is on the wrong things.  In fact, Jesus says that the twelve apostles will sit on twelve thrones with Jesus in his kingdom and that everyone who has left family and possessions for Jesus sake will receive a hundred times what they have lost and receive eternal life.  Sounds like a pretty sweet deal.

But then Jesus tells a story....

Its the kind of story Jesus seems to be fond of telling, the kind that gets under our skin.

The story is one about a landowner who went out to hire workers to work in his field.  He hired some first thing in the morning and agreed to pay them a denarius for a day's work.  The landowner went out again around 9 a.m. and again around noon and 3 p.m. each time agreeing to pay the workers a wage that was just.  He finally went out around 5 p.m., when one would think the work day was nearly done, and made the same agreement with even more workers.  At the end of the day, the landowner instructed his foreman to pay the workers in reverse order.  As it turned out, the foreman paid those who had come at the end of the day a denarius.  When those who had been working all day saw this, they expected to receive more.  But they too received a denarius.

These workers grumbled against the landowner and who could blame them?  Doesn't he know how this works?  Who of us, if we had been working faithfully in a career for many years and saw someone fresh out of college who had never done anything receive the same salary as us their first day of work, wouldn't be furiously upset by the injustice of it all?

There are obviously a lot of good reasons why hard work and a lifetime of experience should be rewarded in the work place.  The only problem is most of us have to spend so much time in that kind of environment that we begin to think that everything in life should work that way...even the Church.  Sure we want new Christians in our congregation but only as long as they realize that the Church runs by our rules because we are the ones who have been here for decades and worked hard to make this place what it is.

But Jesus says that his kingdom isn't like corporate America.  His kingdom is like this landowner.  It is a kingdom determined not by our hard work and long tenure, although those will be rewarded, but a kingdom determined by the compassion and mercy of its king.  It is a kingdom of grace.