2008-10-06 by Frank Lewis

Monday: Romancing this Sunday’s Text

 Exodus 32:1-14
Psalms 106:19-23

Philippians 4:1-9
Matthew 22:1-14 

            I come to the lectionary by a somewhat unusual path. Most Southern Baptists don’t use the lectionary texts each week for preaching following our “free tradition” instead. As a result, when I lead a preaching seminar or teach a class on preaching I find that most of those I address have very little experience, if any, with the lectionary. Few use it; even fewer understand the lections intentional relationship of Hebrew Scripture, Psalm, Epistle Lesson, and Gospel. There are exceptions, but they are rare.

            This is why I like to use the phrase “the romance of the text” when trying to help my Baptist sisters and brothers embrace the lectionary. There is usually a connection, a relationship, a common thread of sorts weaving its way from one passage to the others. This Sunday’s romance rests on several overlapping themes.

            I also find the romance of the texts to be inseparable from the themes of life. The pertinence of Holy Scripture to the daily challenges and opportunities that I find myself experiencing should not amaze me after twenty-five years of pastoral ministry, but it does. As a window, scripture lets me see how God’s story of redemption became operative in the lives of people long ago, and as a window, it allows light to shine on the path I take each day, if I will let it.

            This Sunday’s romance may be about the fickleness of the human heart. From the Hebrew Scriptures and the Psalm text we are introduced to an indecisive community willing to trade their relationship with the God who redeems for a golden calf. There is trouble in the text. Moses has gone to commune with God on the top of a mountain and the people get restless. They not only create an image to worship, they declare a feast which some suggest turned into a steamy spectacle right there at the base of the mountain.

            The Epistle lesson suggests this fickleness as Paul encourages the congregation to “stand fast” in their faith. He has to ask a couple of ladies in the Philippian church to get along in his absence. “Your names are written in the Book of Life” Paul writes, “start acting like it” he must have thought as he “implores them” to get along.

            Then comes the Gospel passage; a parable about a wedding feast where invitations are ignored by an audience too busy for their own good. Harsh judgment falls on these people after their final rejection. A second wave of invitations carry the news of a wedding feast to a different audience and everyone cleans up and dresses in their best attire for the celebration. That is, all but one. He is bound and cast out. Jesus closes the parable with the somber words “many are called, but few are chosen.”

            Admittedly, this does not sound like good news. We close the readings with trouble in the text. On one level there is the possibility that this wedding guest took the invitation for granted. He shows up in his old clothes and hasn’t even taken a bath. Fickle and unable to make up his mind, he approaches the wedding feast with a casual indifference to the grace of his host. Bound and shown the door, he settles for much less than he could have experienced.

            Golden calves come in many shapes and sizes. More often than not, they boil down to an over-inflated view of self. We are impatient people, so we fashion a god that brings instant gratification. We think so much of our individual way that we have to be reminded to get along with others, to play fair, to live in community. We are so accustomed to the look, feel and smell of our environment, that we can’t envision the blessing of a King’s banquet.

            The romance of this Sunday’s texts traces the human emotion of anxiety and our response to it. Anxiety affects our relationships with others, and in a real sense, anxiety prevents us from experiencing the best that God has to offer us as his children. We adopt substitutes and limp along wondering why the journey is difficult.

            And this may be where the romance between life and text comes into play. We are living in anxious times. There is trouble in our world. The current financial storm, leadership voids, the uncertainty that comes with national elections, the agony of war, fuel shortages and rising pump prices, all superimposed on the daily stresses and strains of life would be enough to turn even the best of us into a worshipper of a golden calf. It’s an easy transition. One minute we’re standing near the fire, the next minute, out jumps this golden calf.

            These texts offer this Sunday’s lectionary preacher the chance to speak a word of correction, seasoned with grace, to people who may have slipped into the stream of casual indifference toward the things of the Spirit. They are not bad people, just fellow travelers who need to be reminded that golden calves don’t satisfy, that relationships with fellow travelers matter, and that there is a King’s banquet prepared for those who are willing to leave the soiled clothing of fickle indifference toward God behind.


Frank R. Lewis

The Rule of Charity
2008-10-01 by Jill Duffield

The Rule of Charity


            Is it possible to interpret this text using Augustine’s “rule of charity”? A word of grace doesn’t jump off the page in these verses. Is there any way for the preacher to be true to the text in a way that increases love of God and neighbor? One aspect of the parable that should not be ignored is the reality that the vineyard remains intact. It is in no way destroyed or abandoned. This is evidence that the owner’s tolerance, while not to be assumed infinite, has not yet been exhausted. While the vineyard is intact there is always the hope that those entrusted with its care have the opportunity to be faithful. But what of those already evicted? Are they a lost cause? God alone knows. However, one more word of grace upon which we can rely is the truth that God isn’t finished and the last chapter of salvation history has yet to be written.

Seeing Alternatives
2008-09-30 by Steve Schuette

I can’t help but think of the vineyard in connection with “the good life.”  Maybe I’ve seen too many commercials.  And one needs to be sensitive to those with challenges around alcohol.  But a glass of wine is elegant and party-like (even in the Cana of Jesus’ day), and I hope not to “holy up” scripture to the point that this could get lost.  Jesus was, after all, the one who came “eating and drinking” and was criticized for it. (Mt. 11:19)  The purpose of the vineyard is life-affirming.

Contrast that “commercial” with the actual practice of the business and the disconnect is startling.  Not that this is unusual, unfortunately!  There’s a lot of death-dealing in this story, and, no, it is not pretty.  These tenants could be in There Will be Blood!  Still, hopefully Jill is right, that we are still in a position to fulfill our stewardship and we have not offended the owner to the point where our sentence is a fait accompli.

But I also don’t think we can avoid the hard question:  have we entered into “death-dealing” arrangements?

Not that our punishment is what God wills.  For there’s really no point to the story if there aren’t alternative possibilities, and God is very much interested in alternatives.  The text just seems to suggest that stones fall in certain ways, and that those who “live by the sword shall perish by it as well.”  And in the end the desire to arrest Jesus means that the Pharisees heard the story as a threat to their power, authority, and death-dealing ways rather than as good news of the possibility of living in covenant-relationships that are life-affirming.

I believe that good news is there, but the text also challenges us to see with clarity the contrasting death-dealing that is part of this short story, part of the larger sweep of the Gospel story, and is still a reality.  So much for a “nice Bible story.”

The Power of Pride
2008-09-30 by Jill Duffield

The Power of Pride

            Surely you have seen the ubiquitous bumper sticker, “The Power of Pride.” For better or worse, I am steeped enough in total depravity that every time I see it I immediately mentally superimpose, “The Hell of Hubris.” The power of pride, it seems to me, is that human desire to usurp ownership over that which we do not own, that tendency to be unsatisfied with and resentful of our God-given vocation of stewards and servants. It is the power of pride that overtakes our gratitude for being entrusted with the work of the vineyard and hisses in our ear, “You ought to be in charge. You know better than the owner. Where is he anyway? You are the one doing the work, you deserve the fruit, all of it.” It is the power of pride that makes us myopic and unable to recognize our dependence on the landowner for our very livelihood and our utter reliance on his goodness. It is the power of pride that enables us to justify our actions no matter how cruel and violent. In other words, it is the power of pride that leads us into the hell that is hubris, a state where we are alienated from God, creation, and one another making us perpetually unsatisfied with our role as stewards and servants and therefore unable to participate in God’s reign.

            I wonder if there would be a market for this bumper sticker, “The Hope of Humility.”

Salvation History Ain't Pretty
2008-09-29 by Jill Duffield

Salvation History Ain’t Pretty


This text reminds us of the tumultuous relationship between God and God’s people. Any romantic notions of the good ol’ days or some idyllic time when God said it and therefore people believed it are shattered with an honest reading of this parable, the second of three where Jesus condemns the religious elite of his day and tells them there time as keepers of the vineyard is just about up. The vineyard, which can be understood sequentially as Israel, Jerusalem and God’s empire, will bear fruit for the landowner and if the first farmers are unable to produce a crop or unwilling to yield it to the owner, then God will find other more obedient and trustworthy tenants.

Israel has a long and painful history of ignoring, rejecting and, yes, even killing God’s prophets. God repeatedly sent slaves to collect what was due and repeatedly they came back empty handed or failed to come back at all. God, having invested mightily in the vineyard, planting it, putting a fence around it, digging a wine press and building a watchtower, refuses to give up on it. Finally, the owner sends his own son, surely he will be given what is due his father. But the hard-headed, literally “evilly evil ones”, conspire and kill even him. It seems nothing can open the eyes of those blinded by self-interest, greed and the need for power. With no other option available to him the landowner has to throw the bums out and replace them with tenants who will bear fruit and turn it over to the one its due. But even after all of the violence, disobedience and lawlessness, Jesus, in a few chapters, will lament over Jerusalem and those impervious to the revelation that he is the very son of the parable.

So, where are we in this story of salvation history? Presumably we are the new tenants, the ones to whom the vineyard is leased. We are the church, the caretakers of the land while the owner is absent (at least bodily) and yet, we are in this time and place, also the religious elite subject to the same temptations that overtook the chief priests, elders and Pharisees. Understanding that juxtaposition it becomes important to consider whether or not we are bearing fruit and returning it to the landowner. It is too easy to distance ourselves from those lawless, violent, first tenants, but our world and lives make evident that we have often been seduced by greed, power, pride and selfishness. The vineyard is rife with poverty, pollution and injustice and the harvest of freedom for the oppressed, good news for the poor and release to the captives is seemingly meager. If God will indeed see a return on God’s investment and certainly salvation history isn’t finished, perhaps we should evaluate the quality, quantity and distribution of the fruit we are bearing, prayerfully hoping that we will be open to the Lord’s doing right in our midst. The question to which we may not yet know the answer is: Will we have amazement in our eyes or will we be utterly blind when the vineyard owner’s son comes?    

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