Labor Day 2020

the failure
of overused tiki torches
with canisters rusted from rain
and leaking citronella so much
they can no longer hold a flame
to fend off the mosquitoes
forces us to the table on the porch
for the first time

encircled by Christmas lights
around the top of the screen walls
and glancing at our phones
we speak of school schedules
the diminishing lives of laptop batteries
and debate the frequency of snow days
from years past

the puppy
banished to the family room
hungry and anxious from separation
(oh she has no idea)
yelps through all the conversations
as the summer of the pandemic
comes to an end.

Whom to Believe

a sermon for the Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 21A/Lectionary 26]

Matthew 21:23-32 and Philippians 2:1-13

When I hear Jesus tell this parable about the two sons responding to their father’s request to go work in the vineyard, I feel like it’s speaking directly to me and how I’ve responded to different things over these months of pandemic. I have had all kinds good intentions but my follow-through hasn’t always been very good. We badly need to replace or repair our mailbox post at home, for example, and six months ago I told my own father I’d work on it, and he even made me part of a new post to help out, but it still stands there about to fall to the ground. Back in the early summer Hanne, our church administrative assistant, asked me to help her complete a project on funeral information that she’s been working on for several years now and I said, “Yes,” but guess where that file is right now: on my desk underneath a bunch of other half-done projects.

Perhaps the example of this I feel the most remorse about is the fact that I have been telling Council and other people in the congregation that I’d be happy to lead a book discussion on the topic of racism in the United States but as of now Pastor Joseph and I still haven’t put anything on the calendar or decided what that’s going to look like. We’ve been publicizing this idea since July, and I have at least read a potential book on the topic, but I’m still just not able to commit to a time or a format. Each week that goes by I think, the congregation knows I’ve said, “Yes” to this but in reality, like that second son, I’m just shirking my responsibility.

Have you struggled with this, too, not just during the pandemic but in life in general? Have you set goals for yourself or maybe consented to others’ requests but still haven’t checked those things off your list? In the parable Jesus gives us no indication why the second son never shows up in the vineyard. Maybe he never had an intention of going and he was just giving his father lip service. But maybe he just got distracted or overcommitted elsewhere. Maybe he thought about the realities of actually working in the vineyard and got cold feet.

In the end it doesn’t matter, because Jesus doesn’t tell this parable as a lesson about our To-Do lists, however noble they may be. Jesus uses this parable to illustrate for the chief priests and the elders the differing responses to his own authority. To give a bit of background, it may help to know that something really, really big has happened just before this gospel reading. Since June we’ve been steadily making our way through Matthew’s gospel and in Matthew’s gospel Jesus is on a journey to Jerusalem where he knows he’s going to be handed over to the chief priests and authorities and be killed. In this morning’s gospel passage Jesus is finally there. The day he comes into the city he rides a donkey and all the ordinary people wave palm branches and shouted with excitement and hope that their new king has arrived. And just like if someone in this country wanted to go address the powers-that-be would head to Capitol Hill or the White House, Jesus heads to the temple, the epicenter of his Jewish religion.

He creates a bit of a stir. First he drives the money changers out and then he starts teaching there, drawing crowds. When he winds back up at the temple the next day the religious leaders immediately want to know just who does he think he is? Jesus presence in the temple and the kind of things he is doing—and the kind of energy he is kicking up among the people—are new things to deal with, and the people in charge, the religious leaders, are trying to figure out how to respond.

authority figure?

I have a friend who tells me the story of when her three children were all very young. They have an attic in their house that is accessed through a hole cut in the ceiling. You pull on a cord and down falls this wood hatch and a set of collapsible steps. Lots of houses have these, but it was a source of wonder and mystery to her three children. Her oldest, who was quite the storyteller and had a vivid imagination, had told the younger ones that there were ghosts up there and that mom and dad kept a creature up there. One day during a birthday party she came around the corner to find the hatch opened and the steps all the way on the ground. Concerned for their safety, she immediately climbed up the stairs to find the kids all huddled in the dark over by the edge of a window. “Get down from here right now, boys and girls!” she ordered.

“But, mom,” one of them responded, “we are looking for the ghosts and the creature up here.”

She explained emphatically, and with all the pleading authority of a caring, logical adult, that there were no ghosts, that there were no creatures and that there was nothing of any interest to them in the attic. At first, there was silence from the kids, and then one of the younger ones pointed to the eldest and said, “We believe him.”

The chief priests and elders are in a predicament. The steps have been pulled down and a new experience of God has been opened, first in John the Baptist, but now in Jesus. And people are believing them rather than the figures in the temple. How do to they respond? Do these leaders believe John, whose message was one of repentance, of having their minds and hearts changed to receive Jesus as God’s anointed One? Or do the chief priests and elders maintain their distance? Do they trust Jesus teachings on God’s kingdom and where that will take them, or do they shut the door and go with their status quo experience of religion? They don’t want to buck their religious safety, but they also don’t want to make the crowds angry. I think we’ve all felt the tension between doing a bold new thing that speaks of justice and peace or continuing along with the powers that be. The ministries of John and Jesus are both kind of tied together and Jesus is causing the people to figure out how they will respond.

And then Jesus tells this short parable about the two sons who have to decide how they’ll respond to their father’s request to work in the vineyard. The scenario involves a few more layers than we might understand from our modern angle. To say “No” to a father figure in Jesus’ time was a big deal. It was an insult to the father and a violation of the fourth commandment. The first son, by responding “no,” was doing something deeply offensive to his parents and to the whole system of power and authority in ancient Israel. No one would have liked that first son, even after he went and changed his mind. The second son would have shown honor due his father by agreeing to work in the vineyard. He would have saved public face and looked good to everyone, even if in the end he didn’t follow through.

This parable would have really challenged Jesus’ hearers. In fact, we know it challenged them because this parable is written down three very different ways in the oldest manuscripts we have of the gospel of Matthew. The idea of a son rejecting his father’s request was so offensive that it’s almost like original audiences couldn’t imagine that Jesus would find him to be the hero, and so in some versions of the Bible they changed it to the second son. Religious people couldn’t imagine that that first son, in doing something so disrespectful, could even, with a change of heart, be the one who did the will of the father.

In fact, it’s kind of like being unable to imagine that people like tax collectors and prostitutes are hearing Jesus’ and John’s message and responding to his grace better than the really religious folks. And yet that is precisely who Jesus says are entering the kingdom of God ahead of the religious authorities. Tax collectors and prostitutes are basically representative labels for sinners in general—those people who have, for whatever reason lived in ways and done things that are deeply offensive to God’s righteous ways. Sinners are like that first son who rejected the father’s commandment but now, through a change of heart, a change of mind come to respond to God’s call in Jesus.

It’s not anything that new. God has always been about seeking and loving the people who are lost, the ones who are the least. Jesus is just bringing that into sharper view again. The issue is that some people are better at recognizing that God is present in the life and love of Jesus before the religious experts are, and those are the people on the edges. They are the people who’ve been routinely sidelined and overlooked and oppressed. They recognize mercy when they see it. And they love its authority in their lives. It is an authority that values them. It is an authority that gives them another chance. It’s an authority that bestows them with freedom and honor. It is an authority that makes them heirs of the kingdom. This is the authority that Jesus wields.

Several weeks ago Robin Beres, a columnist for the Richmond Times-Dispatch wrote an article that generated a lot of buzz. Titled, “Do We Really Want to Give up on God?” the article argues that declining participation and membership in churches and communities of faith in America is a bad thing. She touts several statistics about the benefit of religion and worship on personal well-being and things like the rates of volunteerism. A few letters to the editor took her to task for saying this, arguing that religion was outdated or that church services need to be streamlined. It was a very interesting back and forth, and I’m thankful that a member of the congregation painstakingly cut all of them out and sent them to me so that I could read them. As the discussion over religion and its proper place played out in the pages of the paper during the weeks that followed, only one of the letters to the editor mentioned Jesus Christ by name. In a very succinct and articulate statement, our own Joel McKean, former council president explained that the focus on the cross has the power to change lives, and that is the focus of our faith.

There in the pages of our local paper was a profound and beautiful example of responding to the authority of Christ, explaining that God’s grace has a power over our lives that can’t be described by science or defined by philosophy. The issue of authority is a very tricky topic these days. We don’t really know which sources of news to trust anymore, which talking heads are being truthful and loving with us. We can have different experiences with religion and religious figures, some helpful, others not so much. But Jesus authority is something we can be sure of and respond to. It calls us and forgives us. It loves us and gives us gifts for service. His authority leaves the door of the vineyard open so that when we have that change of heart, when we find ourselves led to a new beginning, we will be able to come inside and work the fields of our Father. I would hope that if I were given the public opportunity to respond to God’s grace, I could name Jesus with the grace and confidence that Joel did.

And here’s the thing: while our witness and discipleship might come down to where we stand concerning Jesus and his message, we know ultimately our life and our worth comes down to where Jesus stands toward us. And he stands toward us in love. Our eternal life is in the hands of the crucified and risen One. Jesus has opened that hatch, that staircase, and descended from the tops of the mystery to be with us down here. He has emptied himself completely, never exploiting his equality with God, and he has handed himself over to not just any death, but a death on the cross, mocked and disregarded by all. Jesus’ authority is like an anti-authority, never seizing power, but always giving it up. Never demanding allegiance, but always inviting us to join his journey.

And one day, we are promised, every knee shall bow and every tongue shall confess and every letter to the editor of the entire universe will proclaim him Lord of all. And we will point to him with confidence and say, “I believe Him.”

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

The Holding-Us Family

a sermon for the Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 19A/Lectionary 24]

Matthew 18:21-35, Genesis 50:15-21, and Romans 14:1-12

Life in the Martin house—my house—right now is a life of constant learning of rules and breaking of rules and doling out consequences and saying “sorry.” I’ll spare you the details, and, more importantly, I spare my family the embarrassment, but with a 4-year-old and two middle schoolers daily life involves a rolling tally of screen time and debates about who left which crumbs on the kitchen table and didn’t clean them up and whether or not certain people are allowed in certain people’s bedrooms without knocking.

And that does even include the issues of living with me. Do you know that I’ve never loaded the dishwasher correctly—not even once? I’m serious. It’s not just a matter of opinion. I’m really bad at it and (and have to confess) I don’t really try to get better. A lot of other stuff goes on in our house, to be sure—eating, petting the puppy, watching episodes of “Friends,” but when I step back and look at the whole picture, that’s really the crux of it. At our best, most of what’s going on is forgiveness and compassion.

Isn’t that the case with every family, every identifiable group of people? That’s one thing I’ve loved about the videos from the Holderness family, especially during this pandemic. The Holderness family is this relatively normal family of four who post regularly on social media in a very lighthearted but honest way, usually with music, airing some of their grievances with one another and showcasing daily life together. A great many of their videos reveal how living as one community is really about constant negotiation. It’s about constantly fessing up, acknowledging your shortcomings, and then showing grace. Usually with humor.

The story we have of Joseph in the book of Genesis, of course, is this on a grand scale. It is an epic story of constant negotiations around mistakes of the past, and family trauma and cold heartedness. It goes way, way beyond who left the crumbs on the kitchen table. It’s got favoritism, human trafficking, fake death, lying…all kinds of sordid drama I don’t have time to go into today But in the end, a part of which we hear today,forgiveness and reconciliation rule the day. Joseph is miraculously able to overcome all of his bitterness, all of his pain, all of his anger, after being sold into slavery by his brothers, and he is able to receive them once again in love.

It is such an emotional scene…and so complex. Joseph hears the words of his father, whom he loved, and who loved him a bit too much. It provokes compassion and joy in him, and then there is this culminating scene where Joseph weeps in front of them and then they’re all like “I’m not crying, you’re crying,” and they present themselves as slaves at Joseph’s feet, but Joseph doesn’t want that. He wants his brothers back, not slaves. And somehow Joseph is able to see in all that has happened the hand of God leading them back to one another, restoring them as a family.

There are many things Joseph’s story teaches us, things that even the Holderness family touches on, but one of the main points is that a family can only function if no one is keeping constant track of wrongs. Forgiveness has to wipe the slate clean on occasion. Openness towards reconciliation needs to be present all the time, like a default position on a computer program, like oxygen. Otherwise, it kind of stops being family or community. It becomes chaos.

I think this is largely what Jesus means when he explains to Peter and the other disciples that they are to forgive people not seven times but seventy-seven times. Jesus doesn’t literally mean to tally how many times you forgive someone for sinning and stop at seventy-seven. He’s being flippant with the number, turning the question back on Peter in a humorous way. Seventy-seven was kind of a way of saying, “don’t count occasions of rule-breaking and forgiving because forgiveness isn’t really able to be calculated. It’s like he’s saying be constantly gracious. Don’t ignore wrongdoings, by any means, or the pain they cause, but be aware of your ability to unburden people from their trespasses. Don’t be a Karen all the time, pointing out everyone’s flaws in an unrelenting manner. Relationships are living and active and just as individuals need daily bread to survive, so do we need forgiveness and grace and mercy to make it each and every day. It’s not just a matter of being nice and thoughtful. It a matter of giving people oxygen.

Then Jesus tells this fantastic parable to remind his disciples that they, too have been forgiven. It’s not just a one-way street. Our default stance of grace towards other people is based on God’s grace towards us. We have been loved and forgiven seventy-seven million times. Again, we’re not supposed to count.

The parable tells the story of a slave who owes an exorbitant amount of money to his king. Ten thousand talents may not mean anything to you or me, but historians say this would have been equivalent in Jesus’ time to about 200,000 year’s worth of wages. Scholars tell us that not even King Herod would have had that much in his treasury. How this slave ran up that kind of bill we are not supposed to be too concerned about. The point would be that there is no way he could ever pay it off. When the king makes preparations to sell him and his family, the slave falls down in humility and begs for time to pay it off. And instead of getting a deadline extension, which is what he asks for, he gets complete forgiveness of the debt. The king just lets him go!

But then this slave immediately turns around and comes across a buddy who owes him a much smaller amount. A hundred denarii was equal to about four months of wages, so a very doable debt. He grabs the guy by the throat and demands the money. What happens when you grab a person by the throat? You cut off their oxygen.

The guy pleads and pleads, just in the same manner the first slave had done, but instead of being merciful, instead of cancelling the debt, he throws the poor guy in prison. Word gets back to the king about this, and I suppose that most kings probably wouldn’t really get involved in their many slaves’ various private financial affairs. I suppose most kings really wouldn’t care about who owed who money or who was doing what to which person. I suppose most kings would have bigger fish to fry. But this isn’t most kings. This king doesn’t want this kind of stuff going on in his kingdom. This king has a higher vision for how things roll, and he finds that unmerciful slave and calls him wicked, throws him in jail and has him tortured until he pays the 200,000 years worth of wages.

And the bit about the torture may freak us out a bit, because torture is terrible and inhuman, but on some level, we end up truly torturing ourselves when we withhold forgiveness and shut the door on true reconciliation. I think that’s what Joseph understood. Receiving back his brothers only as slaves would just prolong the torture of everything he’d been through. Doing the hard, often emotional work of listening and restoration frees the person who does it almost more than those who are forgiven.

I came across an article recently about the infants and children of Nicolai Ceausescu’s Romania from the 1980s. In one of the most heartbreaking and disgusting eras of human history, Nicolai Ceausescu, the Romanian dictator, ordered hundreds of thousands of children to be born to appease his fascist fantasies, but because the country was too poor to raise them all in homes, many were placed in orphanages where they rarely received any physical or nurturing care. They would cry and no one would comfort them. They would get scared and no one would hold them. They wouldn’t be able to fall asleep and no one would rock them.

Tragically, we know now this did irreparable damage to the way their brains processed fear and hope, and now many of them are adults (which is what the article was about) and they are unable to function at a normal level in society. They find it difficult to build healthy relationships with others.

It is such an awful thing to ponder and talk about, because it still happens on a smaller scale today. But here’s what it teaches us: Humans, even at birth, it turns out, are able to process mercy and grace. We begin our lives as creatures that receive—receive care, receive warmth, receive joy and security. We do nothing to deserve it, but our survival depends on it. And the survival of others depends on our willingness to share it. It is oxygen for God’s people, and God started it all rolling in Jesus, his Son, that different kind of king who gives up everything, who gets thrown in prison, who gets tortured to death, in order to keep that cycle of forgiveness and reconciliation going.

We never outgrow this. We never outgrow the need to hear and know we are set free from the brokenness that burdens us. We never get too old to receive the news that our debts against God have been cancelled. Across the board. It makes us live.

Sometimes I look online and at the news, especially as we near a presidential election and think we are all holding each other by the throat. How dare you think this, Trump-supporter? How dare you support that, Black Lives Matter activist? And we lay into each other primarily to get a pound of flesh and inflict a mortal wound on the other side because how could they, right? and we want to deprive them of oxygen.

It sounds a bit idealistic, perhaps, but maybe it’s time to stand back and think of the human family, especially as think about that meme we want to post or that news station we want to turn on. Maybe Jesus tells us this parable again right now in hopes time we would realize we’ve been given to one another as brothers and sisters.

And maybe we might hear in this lesson the fact our whole existence is dependent on the grace given to us by God through other people. Certainly we don’t ignore the wrongs we’ve inflicted on one another, certainly we take seriously the real damage that lasts, but certainly it is time to remember, for the love of God, that our default position, as forgiven and loved children of God, is not attack and torture, but listen and embrace. Our default position is grace because that’s what God has lavished on us.

As Paul says to the Romans, “We not live to ourselves and we do not die to ourselves.” My decisions don’t just impact me. I’m bound to you and you are bound to that guy over there. Like Joseph and his brothers. We are the Lord’s, whether we live or whether we die. And his is the hidden hand of God, leading us back to each other.

Are we the Holderness Family?  Not exactly, but we are the Holding Us family, for God holds us in his care and in his steadfast love forever, never repaying us according to our iniquities, holding us from the moment we’re born seeking love and warmth to the moment we die and find eternal love receives us.

Seventy-seven billion times (not that we need to count)!

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.