Branches, Cloaks, and Donkeys (Matthew 21:1-11)

donkey-Here we go. Palm Sunday. Now it’s all happening, right? But you might be asking, “is not Easter for another month? So how are we at Palm Sunday already?” Well, one of the things about Matthew, in particular, is there is a lot that happens between Palm Sunday and Easter. So this text comes early in Lent for us so that we can tend to all that happens between here and Easter. When we get to actual Palm Sunday in worship, we will move back to this story.

This is a long celebrated story, also referred to as the “Triumphal Entry”. Jesus comes into Jerusalem, with Passover approaching, and people are recognizing him for just who Matthew continues to construct him to be: The Messiah. They lay down their cloaks and wave branches, something you do for a king. It’s a kind of literal way to “prepare the way” as John the Baptist called us to do in chapter three. And they cry “Hosanna”, which means “save us”, and the label him “Son of David”, which is a Messianic title. It is one of the few Sundays of the Church Year when we actually act out the story. Why don’t we do that more?

There is a more than one blog worth of material in this story, but suffice it to say this: There’s one little problem in Jesus’ so-called “Triumphal Entry”. Everything about it indicates that Jesus is this powerful king who will liberate the people. He is like a knight in shining armor who’s come to rescue. Except for one thing: Knights and kings ride horses, not donkeys. Jesus is coming in as a king, but just what kind of king? This is not a king who rides in on a horse as a warrior. This is a king who rides in on a donkey, a beast of burden, because he is a king who isn’t served but is one who serves.

Jesus will liberate not by wielding military power over an enemy. No, he will liberate by standing in sacrificial power with the oppressed. The dismantling of oppressive systems that Jesus has been about throughout the Gospel happens not through the usual political means. It comes in a whole other kind of way. It will come through the humble strength of solidarity and sacrificial nonviolent acts of civil disobedience.

Just stay tuned. You’ll see. Hosanna. Hosanna in the highest.

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So Moved (Struggles in Church Leadership): Matthew 20:19-34

QUUU9723033Jesus was “Moved with compassion” (Matthew 20:29-34). The Greek word for compassion here (and in most places) is among my favorite Greek words (because of both its meaning and it’s just fun to say). It’s σπλαγχνίζομαι, and it’s pronounced “splagnizomai”. Try saying it out loud. It’s fun. But this word is rooted in the same word for the “inward parts of the body, the viscera, the entrails.” Or, I think one could say, the bowels. The compassion that Jesus feels is one he feels in his body, it stirs something in him physically.

I love the way Jesus is connected to and aware of his body. He lets his body speak to him, and because of this he always seems to obey those nudges, even if it will get him in trouble or even if he simply doesn’t want to do it. His heart breaks- his stomach literally churns- for people and he can’t not do something. Jesus is on a mission here. He’s got somewhere to be (just wait for tomorrow’s story. It’s a biggie). Jesus wants to take his movement forward, but his body tells him to pay attention to the cries of the marginalized on his way.

As a pastor, it’s easy to get swept up into what I need to do to “move the organization forward”, an to do that, but to what degree and at what expense? Sometimes I feel too much like a leader of a non-profit organization and in so doing end up leading a non-prophet faith community. Because of the pressure to move the organization forward, we pastor types often don’t have the time and even vision to pay attention to those nudges, to listen to our bodies. But deep down the nudges are there.

What if we, like Jesus, were so moved by things that we couldn’t not respond, no matter the risk? What might the Church become? I think attendance may drop or simply not grow. But I also believe that engagement may increase. I think more disciples might be made. I think the Church might begin to matter in its culture again. I pray that as I grow in my ministry I might pay more attention to that which moves me with compassion and respond. May we never move our organizations forward at the expense of those along the path on our way.

Drinking from Jesus’ Cup (Matthew 20:17-28)

warning2-580x358Once again the disciples are concerned about being the greatest, although the “sons of Zebedee” (James and John) stoop to a new level here. They send mom. To be fair, maybe mom up and went of her own accord, but they did not stop her. When Jesus says, “are you able to drink the cup I am about to drink” (a “cup” which he has just described in verses 18 and 19), their response is a quick, “we are able”, which indicates that they certainly endorsed their mother’s question. So whether it was of her own accord or their prompting, James and John are glad she asked. Yes, there were helicopter parents even in first century Israel.

It’s a strange scene, and I wonder how their mom responded to this. We don’t get her reaction. I wonder if she was stopped in her tracks at the thought of her sons drinking from the same cup as Jesus. The cup of being handed over, condemned to death, mocked, flogged and crucified is nothing a mother would ever wish for her children. Yes, he also said, “yet on the third day he will be raised”, but I would be willing to bet that mom’s ears stopped at words like “death”, “”mocked”, “flogged” and “crucified”. I have a hunch she didn’t hear “raised”, and I don’t know that I would either.

This “being like Jesus” thing is not a call to fame, fortune, success, and power. It is not a call to be “great”. It is a call to servanthood, sacrifice, and humility. To be like Jesus, to go where he goes and do what he does, is to do the risky, hard work of empowering the powerless, embracing the outcast, including the disenfranchised and serving the servant. It is the hard work of dismantling oppressive systems. And such a life is not one usually celebrated by those with power. It is a threat to them, and because this risky for us.

And so it does not lead to fame, fortune, success, and power but it leads to its opposites. This is what led Christ to the cross. Many atonement theories will argue that the cross was God’s plan for salvation, but, though that may be, we must remember that the “powers that be” did not put him there so that their sins would be forgiven. They put him there because he upset their power and fortune. We have learned much in that last 2,000 years, and so we can rest knowing that, in most countries anyway, following Jesus will likely not cost us our lives, but it may cost us our livelihood.

The call to follow Christ is a call to hard stuff… but it’s also the good stuff. It is hard but it is good, and it is right, and to it, we must commit ourselves. For it is the work of the Kingdom, which is at hand, and which we are called to work with God to expand. For people like me, I think it means actively laying down my privilege to make space for others who do not look like me to lead. It means getting more women, more people of color, more immigrants, more people of non-heteronormative identities, more people other faiths in positions of power.

The system is designed to favor me, but in so doing it marginalizes others. To “drink from the same cup” as Jesus is necessarily to do the work of dismantling such systems to bring about a more truly equitable world. It’s not easy. And it comes at a cost to us. But it’s the good work. In the small ways that I’ve stepped into this work in my life, I’ve found that I too am liberated through it. Protecting systems is anxious work. It traps us. We become the servants of the system rather than the system serving us. The more I work to dismantle marginalizing systems, the more alive my spirit becomes.

It’s hard work, though. It’s scary. It’s uncertain. But it’s life-giving. Try it.

“Whatever is Right” (Matthew 20:1-16)

ajAerM1_700b_v2“Not fair.” That’s a common response to this parable. As Americans we have this idea of fairness pounded into us, particularly when it comes to things like incomes, wealth, and economics. And in defending our free market economy, we too often land in the place of defending whatever the status quo is: “The market always works,” we say. “Trust the free market,” we say. This parable really isn’t about economics, but it also kind of is. It’s about what the Kingdom of Heaven is like, but economics is in the mix here, because the Kingdom of Heaven is about the breaking down of oppressive systems, and economies are most certainly often oppressive systems.

From my suburban American perspective, I read this and respond, “not fair!” as the workers who only worked an hour get the same pay as those who worked all day. Verse 10 says, “but each of them also received the usual daily wage…” We get angry and cry “not fair” at everybody getting the “daily wage”. Let that in. We think it’s unfair that everybody got what is necessary to put food on the table and a roof over their heads. We think we are entitled to more than our “daily bread”, as we worry not about today but tomorrow as well.

All the while what we slip right passed verses 6 and 7: “…and he said to them, ‘why are you standing here idle all day?’ They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.'” It’s unfair that people got a living wage, but it’s not unfair that not everyone got hired?

We can debate the merits of a free market economy, I suppose, but one of the things this parable does is expose the ways in which the privileged benefit from it. Privilege is one of those things today that many of us like to deny exists. We think we got what we got merely because of our hard work, without recognizing that we got what we got because a system is in place wherein we got hired “early in the morning”. Those people who showed up late don’t deserve what I got. Our cries of unfairness do not expose an unfair God, they expose our own privilege and sense of entitlement. This parable doesn’t match up perfectly with the “equity/equality” concept, but the same point is in it: The Kingdom of Heaven is a place where the systemic barriers are removed.

God is not unfair here. God is doing “whatever is right” (verse 4). There is a whole heap of other things that this parable is about, but one of its overarching themes is the way in which we so often won’t let God be God. We fall right back into the serpent’s temptation in Genesis 3: “…for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” We don’t trust God to be God. We think we know what’s best, what’s fair, “whatever is right.”

The word for “right” that Matthew uses here in terms of the wage the later laborers will receive is the same word often translated “righteous”. When we take control of what is “righteous”, we take the fruit of the forbidden tree as we seek to be like God. We question the landowner, and we live lives full of envy because of the landowner’s generosity. Let us let God be God and us be us. We are laborers in God’s vineyard. Our job is to help plant, grow, and harvest grapes that God will turn into a beautiful, complex, full, vibrant wine for the world. Let’s let God do that. And let’s recognize that God will continually go back out to find more laborers to help in this work. Let’s welcome them into the work with us with open and generous arms, rather than minimize and marginalize their work with us with clenched fists of envy.

Salvation (Matthew 19:16-30)

1vw9nb“For mortals it is impossible, but for God all things are possible”. When we read these words in the context of the rich young man story we really see just how futile our efforts for salvation are. Jesus goes down the list of commandments with him and he says he’s kept them all: “I have kept all these”. He says “I”. Then the disciples chime in with, “then who can be saved?” Time and time again people are coming to Jesus asking what they must do to be saved. Time and time again Jesus responds by stating in some way that you can’t do anything to be saved. Salvation is the work of God, not our own.

I have yet to encounter a Christian church or denomination that denies the saving grace of God, yet at some point, we all seem to call out some kind of action, rite, or sacrament that we need to do “to be saved” or to be a “true Christian”. Whether it’s infant baptism, believer’s baptism, a confession of faith, some version of the “sinner’s prayer”, loving my neighbor, feeding the hungry, doing good to the “least of these”, or who knows what else, we all seem to arrive at something we need to do. I am in no way advocating passivity or complacency, but at what point do we really heed these words “for mortals it is impossible, but for God all things are possible” and stop trying to “be saved” and simply rest in the fact that God will take care of this. This is God’s job. Let God be God (a central theme in a parable all this is leading towards).

This is why Jesus’ seemingly smarmy response to the rich young man is “Why do you ask me what is good? There is only one who is good?” Meaning, “there is no good thing you can do. Only God can do the good thing.” Our need to quantify and control salvation does not let God be God, but furthermore, it keeps us from being who we are supposed to be and doing the thing God expects of us: love one another.  When we quantify and control what one must do to be saved, we enter into judgement, not love. That does not mean we don’t hold people accountable to their actions, but the accountability should come out of a desire to keep someone from hurting one’s self, another, or the world. Accountability should not come out of salvation issues.

So let’s forget about salvation. Yes, I said it. Let’s forget about salvation. It’s not up to us. It’s impossible for us, Jesus says. So let’s let God do it. And let’s simply rest in the goodness of God, and seek to see people and the world as God sees them: Precious. Beloved. Worthwhile. Beautiful. Loved by God.

Not About Same-Sex Marriage (Matthew 19:1-15)

IMG_1158This is a big passage in our world right now. Or maybe I should say my world, that is United Methodist world. So in today’s episode, I need to do some work to talk about this passage in the context of what’s happening in the UMC. The battle in our denomination around LGBTQ+ inclusion has been going on for 47 years, and the way that battle is fought is by launching Bible passages back and forth like hand grenades. Over the course of the debate, one of the big arguments for inclusion is Jesus’ silence on what we call today LGBTQ+ identities. So the conservatives went and found the place where Jesus addresses this to try to disprove the “silence” theory. Today’s post is what I believe to be a necessary and not-so-diplomatic corrective to just how abjectly disingenuous the conservative application of this passage is. 

In verse 4, Jesus says, “Have you not read that the one who made them at the beginning ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh?'” Out of context, you can see how one might come to the conclusion that Jesus seems to be defining marriage as between “one man, one woman”. But this is wrong. Just wrong.

I’m going to be very pointed here, because, frankly, I’m fatigued of playing nice on this one. It is the conservative wing of Christianity- and specifically, “traditionalist” faction of the UMC- that prides itself on Biblical interpretation, following the Bible, and being the people who let the Bible dictate polity, doctrine, and policy more than any others. In fact, their biggest argument in our 47-year fight on these matters has been that we progressives are creating a “departure from Biblical ethics.” We are “abandoning the Bible”. Yet their interpretation of this verse- their signature verse on these matters these days- is utterly disingenuous. The exegesis is dishonest, the theology is wafer thin, and the hermeneutic is rooted in 20th and 21st-century straight white male colonialism. The very people who claim to have the corner on Biblical interpretation don’t even use the tools at which they claim to be experts.

So let’s break this down…

First of all, context. My how they love to ignore context, the most basic component of Biblical interpretation. So let’s start at the beginning.

This passage is not a teaching on marriage. These words come out of the religious leaders trying to trap Jesus: “Some Pharisees came to him, and to test him they asked…” (19:3). The premise for this whole conversation is a dishonest and disingenuous one to begin with. That matters. It says something about what the passage is really about. It’s not about what Jesus is teaching as much as it is about the way the religious institution is trying to discredit him. That’s the narrative.

But what is it that the Pharisees ask? They ask, “Jesus, is same-sex marriage Biblical?” NO! They ask, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any cause?” So first, if Jesus is teaching anything, he is explicitly teaching about divorce and is (at best) implicitly teaching about same-sex marriage. The traditionalist faction hinges their argument on what Jesus may (or may not) be implicitly teaching while abjectly ignoring what he is explicitly saying, and they do this by removing the context. It is dishonest, shameful, and manipulative interpretation. If you are going to marginalize LGBTQ+ inclusion in the church because of this verse, then you must do the same with anyone who has been divorced, and that’s a road I don’t think any of us want to go down. It is a harmful road.

The conversation continues between Jesus and the Pharisees, as they debate the minutia of the law on matters concerning divorce. Nowhere does the conversation ever go toward a generalized “definition of marriage”. Jesus does not “define marriage” here. He argues about the 1st Century Jewish law in regards to divorce. And may I remind us all that even if he is talking about marriage, he is not talking about marriage as we understand it in 21st-century America. He is talking about marriage in a context where women had no rights and no power.

Marriage in this context is about an economic exchange, and Jesus’ restrictions on divorce here are not about excluding and shaming people who get divorced, but they are to protect women who had no voice, rights, or power and could be dismissed and left with no source of income or well being because of misogynist laws.  If Jesus’ citation of the “one flesh” words from Genesis are teaching anything it is calling out the way in which men in that culture merely used and abused their wives. He’s saying “Look, if you’re interested in what God wants in marriage, how about you treat women with a little more respect, dignity, and care and let them speak into your lives more, and stop treating them as your property.”

Not only is it abjectly wrong to apply this passage to 21st-century Western same-sex relationships and marriage, but it is abjectly wrong to apply it to 21st-century Western marriage at all! The traditionalist faction of the UMC (e.g.: the Wesleyan Covenant Association folks) is violating one of the most “Wesleyan” elements of our tradition. They are throwing the quadrilateral out the window.

Putting all of this in context, what’s really going on here is Jesus is addressing the hard-heartedness of the Pharisees. They are coming to him to “test” him with questions about the law. Why? Because they are threatened by the work Jesus has been doing to reimagine the law and the way it is lived out in community and in so doing “fulfill the law and the prophets” (Matthew 5:17). They are threatened by the way this reimagining bends and even breaks down the man-made boundaries of the Kingdom of Heaven, and so the religious establishment is doing whatever they can to discredit him to stop this breaking of the kingdom wide open so that they can continue to enjoy their power and control. So too is it with the traditionalist faction of the United Methodist Church.

With that in mind, it makes perfect sense to me that this faction of the UMC would use this passage as their signature passage to exclude. It’s exactly what the subjects of the passage are doing.

Forgiveness is a Big Deal (Matthew 18:23-35)

Sports-Community-FansWell, it appears that forgiveness is a big deal to Jesus. A really big deal. Both here and in the sermon on the mount he essentially tells us that the degree to which we forgive others is equal to the degree to which we are forgiven. Jesus is deeply concerned with the way we relate to one another. It’s almost as though our relationship with one another is not only more important than our relationship with God but is so because it informs our relationship with God. And why not? Are we not all creations of God? Is it possible (and it is terrifying if it is) that our relationship with God can only be as strong and healthy as our relationships to one another is?

As a father, I can tell you that when my kids don’t get along, when they “sin against” each other, and treat each other unjustly, it affects my relationship with them. The wedge that exists between them extends to a wedge between them and me. I don’t know that it should do this, but it does. And likewise, when they do get along, it endears me to them and nothing blesses me more. Doesn’t it make sense that the same might be true of God Almighty? We are created in God’s image, that is, made to reflect God. The ugliness of our relational discord with one another is not an apt reflection of this God whom we claim to serve, strive to be like and indeed to whom we belong.

Do you want to get close to God? Do you want the Spirit of God to completely enfold you and begin working in you in ways you can’t even fathom? Do you want revival? Real revival? Maybe the path to vibrant spiritual connection is healthy relational connection. Maybe it’s simply to start loving each well, working toward reconciliation, and forgiving one another. End of story.