Pentecost 20 A
October 18, 2020
Whose Image Do We See?
In Jesus’ time, when Passover came around each spring, the religious leaders in Jerusalem found themselves between a rock and a hard place. Here’s the rock: as Jews, they had an extraordinary story of liberation from oppression to retell, to relive, each year at this festival.
Pentecost 20 A October 18, 2020
(Isaiah 45:1-7) Pastor Susan Henry
1 Thessalonians 1:1-10 House of Prayer Lutheran Church
Matthew 22:15-22 Hingham MA
Grace to you and peace from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
Whose Image Do We See?
In Jesus’ time, when Passover came around each spring, the religious leaders in Jerusalem found themselves between a rock and a hard place. Here’s the rock: as Jews, they had an extraordinary story of liberation from oppression to retell, to relive, each year at this festival. Long ago, God had seen God’s people suffering under the harsh rule of Pharaoh, and God had delivered them from that soul-killing, mind-numbing, body-breaking oppression. God had led them out of Egypt and set them free – and God had told them to keep on telling the story of how a powerful God can set an oppressed people free. That is a rock of a story – big, solid, and meant for leaning on.
And here’s the hard place: the religious authorities in Jesus’ time had worked out with Rome’s appointed rulers a fragile arrangement that allowed for Jewish religious observance as long as it didn’t create trouble in the empire. If it did, the consequences would be grave. The Jewish authorities in this little occupied territory had to both teach and obey Jewish law and attract as little attention as possible from Rome. That was especially challenging when Jerusalem was crowded with people who had come up to the city to celebrate Passover.
It’s between that great rock of a story about liberation and that hard place of being used by Rome to keep order that the Jewish leaders found themselves. How can you call yourself a leader if you tamp down either the dangerous story or the dangerous situation? And how do you tell the amazing story of how God once set free your own ancestors, without expecting that, in response to that very story, a deep yearning to be free from Roman oppression might bubble up somewhere in the city and spill out into the streets? Between that rock and that hard place, there’s not a lot of space -- but there is a lot of fear.
Jesus walks boldly (and rides humbly on a donkey) right into that in-between space where the religious leaders’ understandable fear, crass self-interest, and genuine faithfulness to God are coming up hard against each other. I can almost hear the religious leaders shouting at Jesus, “We’ve figured out how to live within the limits imposed on us, so stop rocking the boat or we’ll all end up drowning!”
Jesus of course just keeps on being Jesus, teaching, healing, forgiving, and proclaiming the reign of God, which is what set him on this collision course with the Jewish leaders in the first place. During what we call Holy Week, the last week of Jesus’ life, the religious authorities set out to entrap Jesus so they can get rid of him for good. A very odd coalition made up of the disciples of the Pharisees and a group of Herod’s followers approach Jesus, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality.” It’s all true. It’s not at all sincere.
“Tell us, then, what you think,” they say; “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” Yes or no? Scholar Jeannine Brown notes that “[t]he conundrum for Jesus is this: If he answers yes, then he could be perceived as in collusion with Rome, justifying Roman occupation and oppression of the Jews. This would not be a popular answer among the Jewish people. On the other hand, if Jesus answers no, he could be suspected of revolutionary sentiment against Rome.” Given who’s asking this question, Jesus knows there’s malice in it.
They challenge him, and he meets their challenge. To do so, he has to ask for a coin. He doesn’t carry coins with “graven images” on them because that would not be lawful for him as a Jew. There actually were coins without any images, coins called shekels, that were lawful for Jews to use to pay the Temple tax. But right there in the Temple, where no faithful Jew should be carrying Roman coinage, one of Jesus’ opponents pulls out a coin marked with the image of the emperor, Tiberius Caesar, and an inscription that identifies him as divine, as a god.
Jesus, who can be as cunning as his detractors, wants to know whose head and whose title they see. It’s right before their eyes, of course, so they name the emperor. “Okay, then,” Jesus says, “give. . .to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
So – is that a yes or a no to their question? Is it something more or something less than a real answer? Whatever it is, it stops them in their tracks. Their response is amazement. The writer of Matthew says that after they heard Jesus’ reply, his opponents “left him and went away.”
I wonder what they went away thinking. I know what I went away thinking about his answer. I went away thinking about a verse from one of the psalms – a verse that I’m sure those disciples of the Pharisees knew, too. “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it; the world, and those who live in it.” Well, if “the earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it,” what exactly is left for the emperor to rule over? If God is Lord of it all, what is the emperor really lord of? Really – nothing. That’s kind of exhilarating. It doesn’t answer the question about taxes, but the real question never was about taxes. The real question was about identity and loyalty, about knowing what image is stamped on us.
Whose image is imprinted on us? What identifies us? We are created by God, “made in the image of God.” We are redeemed and set free by God, “marked with the cross of Christ forever” in baptism. There’s an old hymn that begins, “On my heart imprint your image, blessed Jesus, king of grace. . . .” So I’d say we’re pretty well marked as God’s own: created in God’s image, with a cross on our foreheads and a picture of Jesus on our hearts. We belong to God.
We belong to God, not to the emperor in any of his disguises. We are called to be “in the world, but not of it,” which is no small challenge. We are not called to parcel ourselves out somehow, deciding how much of us is to be rendered to some secular realm and how much of us is to be rendered to God. That is a no-win proposition guaranteed to distract us from living as full citizens of the reign of God that is already but not yet fully here.
How will others recognize who and whose we are? How will they know that we are, in a way, the coin of God’s realm? That we are marked not with some “graven image,” some idol, but with the cross of Christ? And that what we are to spend ourselves on is in the service of God’s “kingdom come”?
One way for us to bear witness to who and whose we are is to live as people of hope in our anxious, divided, fear-filled world. In our nation, statistics track the rising number of coronavirus cases in most states and the almost unimaginable number of Covid deaths that have left countless families and friends bereft. Stories of filings for unemployment, fears of evictions, and food insecurity, along with videos like that of George Floyd’s death reveal the invisible cost of ever-increasing wealth inequality, the depth and breadth of racial injustice. Add the climate crisis to it, and it’s heavy, daunting, fraught, anxiety-provoking stuff. Plus, the coming election looms large in our collective consciousness, too. It’s a lot.
But alongside all our stories and statistics, we lay God’s stories and statistics. We know that a powerful God can set free a powerless and oppressed people. God continues to pry us loose from what oppresses us and others, from what holds us and others captive, from what we are complicit in, so that we can be signs of hope in a sometimes feeling-hopeless world.
We can care for one another, bearing one another’s burdens and sharing each other’s joys. We can encourage one another, support one another, pray for one another. We can advocate for justice for all and work to build a more peaceful world.
How else can we be the coin of God’s realm? Especially now, we can ask hard questions of those who seek to lead our country and listen carefully to whether the answers we hear reflect the justice, righteousness, compassion, mercy, and forgiveness that are signs of God’s kingdom come.
Like the believers in Thessalonica to whom Paul wrote, we can practice our faith so that others can give thanks for our “work of faith and labour of love and steadfastness of hope.”
We can give to God what belongs to God. We who are made in the image of God and marked with the cross of Christ forever will discover that God will sustain us through the great challenges of our time. God will also strengthen us to live the lives to which we have been called as children of God, as friends and followers of Jesus, and as people willing to go where the Holy Spirit leads us.
Pentecost 19 A / Proper 23
October 11, 2020
All Is Ready – Come Enjoy the Feast
Now and then, someone will say to me, “I don’t like that Old Testament God – too much anger and violence and punishment.” There is a lot of difficult stuff in the Old Testament, and when someone is struggling with it, we remember together that the Old Testament God and the New Testament God are one and the same God. God is – God.
Pentecost 19 A / Proper 23 October 11, 2020
Philippians 4:1-9 Pastor Susan Henry
Matthew 22:1-14 House of Prayer Lutheran Church
Grace to you and peace from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
All Is Ready – Come Enjoy the Feast
Now and then, someone will say to me, “I don’t like that Old Testament God – too much anger and violence and punishment.” There is a lot of difficult stuff in the Old Testament, and when someone is struggling with it, we remember together that the Old Testament God and the New Testament God are one and the same God. God is – God. In the Old Testament, God is revealed as the creator of all that is, the one who hears his people’s cry and saves them, the one who gives them the gift of the Ten Commandments and leads them through the wilderness to a land flowing with milk and honey. The writers of Israel’s history, the psalmists, and the prophets all witness to a God who creates and liberates, loves and leads, offers mercy and desires justice.
Over the course of the few thousand Old Testament years in which God’s people were coming to know God better, it seems like they missed some things that were absolutely true of God and attributed some less-true things to God because God seemed like the best or the only possible explanation for them. It must have finally become clear to God that the only way for us who are made in God’s image to really know what God is like was for God to come and live among us, to come right into our midst and live as one of us – which is exactly what God did in Jesus.
God-in-a-manger is approachable. God-who-calls-us is liberating and challenging, provocative and passionate. God-who-heals-us is powerful. God-who-walks-with-us is a friend. God-who-weeps, God-who-suffers, God-on-the-cross is shocking and almost unimaginable, even when it’s right there before our eyes. And God-who-is-more-powerful-than-death is our God. We know all this in and through Jesus Christ, God-with-us.
Both old and new testaments witness to a gracious and merciful God who forgives us and to a compassionate and generous God who feeds us and others, inviting all to God’s table. Here’s the prophet Isaiah’s witness to this God: “O Lord, you are my God; . . . I will praise your name, for you have done wonderful things, plans formed of old, faithful and true.” Isaiah knows God as “a refuge to the poor,” as “a shelter from the rainstorm [and] a shade from the heat.” We know this God, too.
What will this sheltering God do for “all peoples”? Make us dinner. Not just a quick, get-it-on-the-table, week-night supper, but a marvelous, extravagant meal – “a feast of rich food, a feast of well-matured wines,” Isaiah says. And, as if graciously feeding us isn’t enough, God will also “swallow up death forever [and] wipe away the tears from all faces.” We will hear this language again in the vision of John that’s recorded in the book of Revelation. So – gracious and sheltering care, a sumptuous banquet, the end of death and sorrow – all of this “for all peoples.” What a future God is drawing us into! With Isaiah, we can “be glad and rejoice” at this good news.
However, in our sometimes toxic cultural stew of anxiety, uncertainty, and divisiveness, “Be glad and rejoice” can get eclipsed by a different, powerful, often unspoken message: “Be afraid.” Be afraid. Other people want what you have, so there might not be “enough” – whatever that means. Be wary, especially of people who aren’t like “us” – whatever that means. Be afraid. Be very afraid. Fear fills the air in our culture right now, and just because we’re Christians doesn’t mean we aren’t as susceptible to it as anybody else. But being Christians might mean we can’t be as easily seduced into acting out of fear as everybody else. It might mean we can hold onto not only God’s promise to be refuge, shelter, and shade, but also to be the one who invites us to a great feast prepared for all to enjoy.
Then, alongside “Be afraid,” we will remember to “Be glad and rejoice” because alongside our pandemic-upended plans lie God’s steadfast promises. We know, in Old and New Testament stories, that God-who-forgives-us is gracious and merciful and that God-who-feeds-us-and-others is compassionate and generous. The prophet Isaiah and the apostle Paul invite us to remember where our security really lies and in whose hands the future is held so that we are neither driven nor paralyzed by fear and so that God can use us in the service of God’s vision of sheltering care, of a feast where there is enough for all to enjoy, and of release from suffering, pain, and sorrow. There is so much good news here.
That’s in pretty stark contrast with our gospel reading from Matthew – which doesn’t feel much like “good news,” does it? This is a parable full of anger, violence, and punishment, written for a traumatized community living in anxious times and on high alert. It’s a parable at least obliquely addressed to that community’s religious authorities.
By the time the writer of Matthew records this story, the city of Jerusalem has been burned to the ground and the Temple has been utterly destroyed. Matthew’s community sees this devastation as at least in part resulting from the unfaithfulness of the religious authorities, from their refusal to listen to John the Baptist, to Jesus himself, and to those in Matthew’s time who are preaching the risen Christ.
The writers of Matthew and of Luke tell quite different versions of Jesus’ parable about an invitation to a dinner. As Matthew tells it, it alludes to the religious authorities’ refusals and rejections, and it reveals that they are no longer trustworthy leaders. In refusing the king’s invitation to celebrate the marriage feast of his son – in other words, in rejecting Jesus, God’s Son – they have failed to lead the people of God faithfully. God has prepared a feast. All is ready and all are welcome – but some refuse to come and enjoy it. In truth, the very ones whom you would surely have expected to “get it,” don’t. For the writer of Matthew and for his community, that’s maddening and sad and crazy-making and wearying and appalling -- and Matthew’s choice of fierce words and fiery images in this story surely tells us more about the gospel writer and his community’s anger, hurt, and frustration than they actually tell us about God.
Now, in the ancient Near East, if you got invited to a wedding, you dressed in a way that honored the host and the occasion. To show up in your workout clothes and just hang around the edges of the party for the food and drink would be really insulting. All is ready and all are welcome, but the sumptuous feast and the gracious host are not to be taken for granted. Come join the party, people! Say “yes” to the invitation and then really enter into the celebration!
Something about this parable reminds me of the French writer Voltaire who, as the story goes, was on his deathbed. His friends were urging him to confess his sins and to seek forgiveness before he died, and he famously, arrogantly replied, “God will forgive me. It’s his job.” That’s who I imagine the king seeing hanging around the buffet table and the open bar, taking for granted the king’s generosity and hospitality, and generally being way too cavalier about having been invited to this wedding feast.
I know there are times when I’m cavalier about what God has done for me in Christ. I’m seldom intentionally rude to God, but sometimes in the crazy busy-ness of life, out of my own and our culture’s anxiety, or when I just want what I want, I forget to “be glad and rejoice.” I forget to come and enjoy the party. I forget for just a moment that in my baptism, I was given the ultimate wedding garment: I was clothed in Christ – and you were, too. And what we get to do together is live out the new life we’ve been given, rather than take it for granted or be cavalier about it. We are meant to live the lives to which we have been called as children of God, to join the party and really enter into the celebration. We are enlisted in the service of God’s dream for no one to go hungry and for all to find shelter.
In the world in which we live, what might that look like? Well, a few years ago out in Indiana, it looked like this. A week before her big day, when Sarah Cummins called her wedding off, she and her fiancé had already signed a $30,000 contract for the reception they’d planned at the Ritz Charles for 170 invited guests. A nonrefundable $30,000 contract. When there wasn’t going to be a wedding, what did Sarah Cummins do? She begged and pleaded and wept and hoped the venue would overlook that “nonrefundable” thing – which they wouldn’t.
What did she do then? She gave a banquet and invited other guests. She invited people who were experiencing homelessness. She called local shelters and then she arranged for transportation to the reception hall, and she greeted each of her guests as they arrived. Local businesses and residents donated suits and dresses for the guests to wear. Charlie Allen, dressed for the party in a donated jacket, said, “I didn’t have a sport coat. I think I look pretty nice in it.”
Sarah, her mother, her aunts, and three of her bridesmaids dined with their guests on bourbon-glazed meatballs, roasted garlic bruschetta, chicken breast with artichokes and Chardonnay cream sauce, and wedding cake. (Her former fiancé footed most of the bill, by the way.)
In the gospel not according to Matthew, Jesus said, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a woman who gave a wedding banquet for 170 warmly-welcomed, dressed-for-the-occasion, surprised-by-the-invitation guests who gladly entered into the celebration and thoroughly enjoyed the party.”
Pentecost 18 / Proper 22 A
October 4, 2020 Love’s Good Fruits
As the Glass Fire continues to ravage the Napa Valley in California, vineyard owners are experiencing devastating losses. Fire has destroyed acres of wineries and homes and fields. On vines that escaped harm from the fire itself, grapes may be so tainted by smoke that they are useless.
Pentecost 18 / Proper 22 A October 4, 2020
Philippians 3:4b-14 Pastor Susan Henry
Matthew 21:33-46 House of Prayer Lutheran Church
Grace to you and peace from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
Love’s Good Fruits
As the Glass Fire continues to ravage the Napa Valley in California, vineyard owners are experiencing devastating losses. Fire has destroyed acres of wineries and homes and fields. On vines that escaped harm from the fire itself, grapes may be so tainted by smoke that they are useless. “I’m numb,” said one vineyard owner. “My heart is just broken,” said another. Our hearts go out to them.
In truth, our hearts go out to California vineyard owners devastated by the fires, to Midwestern farmers whose fields were ravaged by wind and rain, and to local small business owners trying to survive the crisis brought on by the pandemic that we’re all continuing to cope with. And in case our hearts aren’t heavy enough already, the president of our nation is hospitalized at Walter Reed Military Medical Center with Covid, and anxiety is rippling through the country. We could use some good news.
At least at first reading, the gospel for today sure doesn’t seem like the place we’ll find it! In this parable from Matthew’s gospel, innocent people get beaten and killed, a vineyard owner’s son is murdered, and Jesus utters dark words about death and destruction. Yikes! Is there any good news for us today? There is, but we’ll have to pry it loose from its culture, its history, its misuses, and its author – Matthew.
Ah, Matthew – my least favorite gospel. Of the four – Matthew, Mark, Luke, John -- it’s the one that’s heavy on violence and threats of catastrophe, full of “outer darkness,” “a furnace of fire,” and “weeping and gnashing of teeth.” What’s up with that?, we might ask. Why so many all-caps, dark, scary words and images?
We usually take stories about Jesus as they come, maybe assuming we’re hearing about what “really happened,” as though the gospel writers had video of it all. But each writer sees Jesus from their own perspective, and that colors how they tell his story to their community. We do something like that, too. In the Before Times, if we went to a baby shower, what we told people about it depended on who those people were. If they were kids, we probably emphasized how fancy and how delicious the cupcakes were. We’d tell pregnant friends about the cute little onesies. If we called grandma, we’d focus on who in the family was at the shower and how everybody missed her and sends their love. Same baby shower with cupcakes, onesies, and guests, but different tellings of the story.
The gospels do something similar. They tell things in particular ways because of who they’re written for and what’s going on in that community. So -- what was happening in Matthew’s community? We don’t know who wrote the gospel that we call Matthew, but we think it might have been written for Jewish followers of Jesus in Syria or Antioch who were in the thick of a conflict with Jews who weren’t followers of Jesus. For much longer than we used to think, Jews who didn’t follow Jesus and Jews who did were still siblings and still saw themselves as part of the same faith family. Matthew’s gospel reflects some of the family conflict, the defensiveness, and the hitting-where-it-hurts that siblings know just how to do.
Although this part of Jesus’ story takes place in Jerusalem during what we have come to call Holy Week, the writer of Matthew recounts it fifty to sixty years later. By then, Jerusalem has been destroyed and the Temple has been reduced to rubble by the Romans. The heavy hand of the Roman empire marginalizes both the traditional Jewish community that was centered on the Temple and the newer Jewish community that follows Jesus. Neither group has any power in the culture, and so sometimes the siblings take out their anger and frustration with Rome on each other. It leaks out sideways. Positions harden, understanding wanes, invective gets hurled, divisions deepen, respect evaporates.
With that background in mind, let’s look at today’s gospel. Just a few days earlier, Jesus had entered into Jerusalem riding on a donkey, with crowds shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!” Jesus then entered the temple, driving out those who were selling and buying, and overturning the money-changers’ tables. He said, “It is written” – in Isaiah 56:7, by the way – “’My house shall be called a house of prayer;’ but you are making it a den of robbers.” There at the temple, Jesus then healed the people who came to him, making them whole and well.
By then, the temple authorities had seen what was going on and heard all the “hosannas,” and they were not pleased. When Jesus returns the next day and is teaching, the chief priests and the elders want to know by what authority he’s doing what he does and who gave that authority to him. He says, “I have a question for you, too. Answer mine, and I’ll answer yours.” He asks them whether John’s baptism came from heaven or from humans. They confer – argue, actually – because if they say it’s from heaven, then Jesus will ask why they didn’t believe it. And if they say it’s from humans, they’ll feel the wrath of the people who see John as a prophet. So they refuse to answer Jesus, and he refuses to answer them.
Then he tells them three parables, three stories guaranteed to antagonize them. The first is about a man who had two sons whom he sent to work in his vineyard. One said, “No, I won’t go, but then he did. The other said, “Sure, I’ll go” but then he didn’t. “Which of the two,” Jesus asks, “did what his father asked?” They answer, “The first.” Jesus responds, “Yes, and I tell you that crooks and sex workers are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. John came to you and pointed you in the right direction, but you didn’t believe him. The tax collectors and the prostitutes did, and even after you saw how their lives were changed, you did not change your minds and believe him.”
I suspect that those in charge of the temple – the place where God was reliably present -- took no small amount of offense at being told that the people they look down on get to cut in line when it comes to entering God’s kingdom. Jesus is not making any friends among his siblings, the priests and the elders, is he?
He has another story for them, and that’s our gospel reading for today. A landowner plants a vineyard, Jesus says, fences it in, digs a wine press, and builds a watchtower. Before he leaves, he leases it to tenants who will tend to it and take a portion of the fruit of those vines as their pay when the grapes are gathered in. But instead of being good stewards of the owners’ land, they get greedy. When his servants arrive to collect what rightfully belongs to him, the tenants beat one, stone another, and murder the third.
The owner sends others, but the tenants respond the same way. Finally, the owner of the vineyard sends his own son, believing that they will respect him – but they don’t. Somehow they convince themselves that with the son dead, they’ll inherit what would have been his. And so they kill him. “When the owner of the vineyard comes,” Jesus asks the priests and the elders, “what will he do?” They say, “He’ll make them die a miserable death, and he’ll lease the land to those who’ll do right by him.”
They probably didn’t say, “Bingo!” back in Jesus’ day, but Jesus surely lets them see that they have judged themselves and been found guilty of not being good stewards of what was entrusted to them, of not bearing good fruit for God. They didn’t recognize John for who he was, and they are plotting Jesus’ death – the son’s death -- because they do not recognize him as Son of David and Son of God.
Just in case the priests and the elders haven’t caught on yet, Jesus pokes the bear again when he quotes from Psalm 118: “The stone that the builder rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes.” The writer of Matthew continues with Jesus saying, “Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom. The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.”
That’s quite the veiled threat to their position and power in the Temple and to their role in leading God’s chosen people. No wonder they want Jesus out of the picture. Permanently. Within days, they believe they have accomplished that, as Jesus suffers and dies on a Roman cross. We know how that story ends, though.
Now, for centuries, the gospel of Matthew’s language about taking the kingdom away and giving it to others has not been understood as reflecting intense sibling rivalry between Jews who don’t follow Jesus and Jews who do. Instead, his words have been used in ways that foster hatred and violence against the Jewish people. For centuries, Christian tradition understood this verse to mean that God had rejected them and given the kingdom over to Christians. The theological word for that is supersessionism, sometimes called “replacement theology,” meaning that the new covenant in Christ would supersede the old covenant God made with the Jewish people. Lutherans reject that theology, and we grieve how the violent language in this parable in Matthew has been used to countenance violent actions against a people with whom God has made an everlasting covenant.
Over the past few years, anti-Semitism has left our Jewish siblings more and more fearful as attacks on Jews have increased. Just about two years ago, eleven people were killed and six were wounded at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh in the deadliest attack on the Jewish community in the United States. We are called to stand with and defend our Jewish sisters and brothers and to reject anti-Semitism, especially when Christian scripture – often from Matthew’s gospel -- is used to justify it.
So, if you’re still waiting for the “good news” part of this sermon, here it comes. When we read Matthew’s telling of this parable with all its anticipated violence, we remember that Jesus, “the stone that the builder rejected,” did not come wreaking havoc and doing the kind of violence Matthew expects. When it seemed that death had prevailed, God wasn’t finished. God got the last word, and that word was “life.” New life. New life that was revealed in the risen Jesus who spoke words of peace to his fearful disciples, who opened the scriptures to those with whom he walked to Emmaus, who revealed himself in the breaking of the bread, and who built a charcoal fire on the beach, calling to those who had denied and abandoned him, “Come and have breakfast.”
No vengeance. No violence. No shaming. No being put to a miserable death for being faithless. No cornerstone to break them in pieces or to be crushed by. Just, “Come and have breakfast.” Just be loved and act with love that bears fruit. As Matthew puts it, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. And love your neighbor as yourself. ‘On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.’” On these two commandments hang the good fruits that grow when we tend God’s vineyard with love.
Being loved, especially as we know that love in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, sets us free to love one another, to love our siblings and our neighbors and our enemies. That’s good news. The gift of being loved sustains us as we do the work of love in a country where, especially now, positions harden, understanding wanes, invective gets hurled, divisions deepen, and respect evaporates. The world needs what we have. As stewards of what the apostle Paul calls “the mysteries of God,” we are set free to do the hard work of loving in order to produce “the fruits of the kingdom” that the owner of the vineyard looks forward to enjoying with us.
Pentecost 15 A / Proper 19
September 13, 2020
Freedom From and Freedom For
You may remember that back when Moses was tending his father-in-law Jethro’s flock, he had turned aside to see a bush that burned but was not consumed, Out of that burning bush, God had called Moses to go to Pharaoh and to bring God’s people out of Egypt.
Pentecost 15 A / Proper 19 September 13, 2020
Exodus 19:1-8; 20:1-3 Pastor Susan Henry
Matthew 18:21-35 House of Prayer Lutheran Church
Grace to you and peace from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
Freedom From and Freedom For
You may remember that back when Moses was tending his father-in-law Jethro’s flock, he had turned aside to see a bush that burned but was not consumed, Out of that burning bush, God had called Moses to go to Pharaoh and to bring God’s people out of Egypt. When Moses asked, “Who am I to go to Pharaoh?” God responded, “I will be with you.” God also said, “And this shall be the sign for you that it is I who sent you; when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship God on this mountain.” The place where Moses is first encountered by God will be the very place where the people will worship the God who set them free. In other words, when all is said and done, Moses will see that God is the one who said it and did it. Moses will have to hang onto the promise of that sign for a long time, through a long struggle and a strange deliverance, and in the midst of what will become a very long journey.
I wonder if Moses was tempted to ask for a sign from God before he took on this seemingly ludicrous mission. Maybe this sign assured Moses that the success of this project wouldn’t depend on him, but on God. On God’s determination to set God’s people free. On God’s plan. And on God’s power.
We left off last week just as the people, having crossed the sea on dry land, were singing and praising God for bringing them out of slavery into freedom. Pharaoh might have determined where they lived and what they ate and when they worked, but now they were free. They knew what they were free from – but what was their freedom for?
Apparently, early on, it was for complaining. The water was too bitter to drink, so God showed Moses how to make it sweet. Then, there wasn’t enough food to eat, and the people accused Moses and Aaron of bringing them out of Egypt -- where they claimed they’d had plenty of meat and bread to eat -- into the wilderness where they were going to die of hunger. They have a point, of course. They’re a vast number of people who left Egypt without much in the way of provisions, and there’s no Costco anywhere in sight.
God hears their complaining and tells Moses to say this to the people: “At twilight you shall eat meat, and in the morning you shall have your fill of bread; then you shall know that I am the Lord your God.” They have quail for dinner and manna for breakfast, meat God provides along with bread from heaven. They are to gather just enough manna for the day, which means they are to trust God for tomorrow’s bread. We are asked to do that, too, when we pray, “Give us this day our daily bread.” On the sixth day, the people can gather enough for two days without it spoiling, so that they can rest on the sabbath.
God continues to provide food, but water is hard to come by, and the people rise up against Moses again. God provides water from a rock, in answer to the people’s question, “Is the Lord among us or not?”
The first part of the book of Exodus reveals God’s power, often God’s power over creation itself, in order to liberate the people from slavery. The second part of the book of Exodus reveals God’s presence with the people – providing what they need to live, sustaining them in myriad ways in answer to their deep concern over whether they’re out there on their own or whether God is with them. Nothing is how it used to be, they’re anxious about the constantly changing present, and what the future will bring is unknown. Maybe we can relate. And maybe, in the wilderness of our own grief, nostalgia, complaining, anxiety and fear, we sometimes wonder, “Is the Lord among us or not?”
All summer we’ve heard variations on that question, asked or unasked, but there for sure. Abraham and Sarah heard God’s promise of more descendants than there are stars in the sky, but as they waited and waited, they wondered or schemed or worried or laughed, but they saw that, in the birth of Isaac, God’s promise began to be fulfilled. Yes, the Lord was with them.
The God of Abraham revealed Godself to be the God of Isaac as well. Could God’s promise to bless all the families of the earth through Abraham’s descendants happen among a family where conniving and deceit and jealousy were writ large? With them, through them, and sometimes despite them, the purposes of God continued to be worked out. God was there with them, among them.
The God of Abraham and Isaac came to Jacob as well, making this promise: “Know that I am with you, and will keep you wherever you go.” And through Jacob – whose name God changed to Israel – more and more families of the earth were blessed when Jacob’s son Joseph rose to power in Egypt and staved off hunger not only for the Egyptians but also for his own brothers who came to Egypt to buy grain so their family would not starve during the famine. Joseph moved them all to Egypt and they were welcomed by the Pharaoh himself, who saw to it that they had the best land to live on. Sojourners in Egypt, they flourished there. Abraham and Sarah had many, many descendants by then, and countless people had been blessed -- had survived, really -- because of Joseph, their great-grandchild. Was God present with Joseph and his family? Yes.
There were descendants and blessings in fulfillment of God’s promises, but with those descendants in Egypt, God’s promise of a land for them to call their own remained unsatisfied. Had God forgotten? Was God still among them? Maybe some of them wondered about that promise throughout the four hundred years they spent in Egypt – good years, until “A new king arose in Egypt who did not know Joseph.” The new Pharaoh made the lives of Abraham’s descendants miserable, forcing them to labor under increasingly harsh conditions.
God saw what was happening, God heard their cries, and God called Moses, who, despite his reluctance to say ‘yes’ to God’s call, led the people out of Egypt, into the wilderness, and toward a land they understood as promised to them. They surely had to take the long view to believe that God was indeed among them, and that reminds us to take the long view, too, when we wonder where God is in the mess we’re collectively in.
The people of God in the long-ago wilderness complained, were anxious, felt crabby, wanted back their rosy, romanticized view of the old days, were worn down by life in a place they’d never been before, and didn’t know when it all would end. I can relate to that. How about you? And how about our neighbors whose jobs have disappeared, who worry about being evicted, who used to donate to food pantries but now depend on them? We all may now and then ask, “Is the Lord among us or not?”
After three months, as the people of God in the wilderness come close to the mountain where God had first appeared to Moses, God gives them a definitive answer to their fear-filled, hope-full question. The answer is not only about what God does, but about who God is. Moses is to tell the people, “You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself.” There’s both strength and tenderness in what God does. This isn’t just a pronouncement about a far-away God who is powerful. It’s about a God who has initiated a relationship with a people, who acts on their behalf and brings them safely through. And – not just safely through, but near to God. Near to God, and dear to God.
God initiates the relationship, and God’s people say ‘yes’ to it. God stakes a claim on them, calling them God’s “treasured possession.” Although the whole earth is God’s, God chooses to make a covenant with this particular family – a family to which we, too belong. As people dear to God’s heart, how are those who’ve been set free to live? What does God desire for God’s covenant people? When Pharaoh in his many disguises isn’t in charge of our lives and we are free, what is our freedom for? How shall we live?
On that holy mountain where God had told Moses that the people would come and worship after they were no longer in bondage in Egypt, God makes God’s presence known in lightning, thunder, and smoke. It’s no doubt terrifying – “take off your shoes because you’re standing on holy ground” terrifying. “Listen up,” God says, “because here is what your freedom is for. ‘I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.”
God has staked a claim on a people, and that people has entered into a covenant with God. In numerous other places in scripture, God says, “You will be my people, and I will be your God.” As Lutheran scholar Rolf Jacobson puts it, “God first establishes the relationship with us. Only then does God make a claim on our behavior.” We call what God gives to the people that day the Ten Commandments or, in Godly Play, The Ten Best Ways to Live. After “freedom from,” there’s “freedom for.” For loving God – what the first few commandments are about – and for loving our neighbors as ourselves – what the rest of the commandments are about. That’s how a no-longer-enslaved people are to live.
The gift of the commandments isn’t meant to be a means of salvation. There are no ladders we can climb to earn what God freely gives. Nor is the gift of the commandments really about “us.” Jacobson says, “The law is not about us – it is about our neighbors. God give you the law, not so that you can get more spiritual or have your best life now, but so that your neighbor can have her [or his] best life now.” And God gives our neighbors the commandments for the sake of their loving God and loving us.
In our culture right now, Christians have a unique opportunity to live out what we are “free for” -- especially as we know that freedom in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. We are free to not insist on our own way. We are free to love our neighbors by wearing a sometimes-uncomfortable mask. We’re free to love our neighbors by refraining from the parties we’d like to throw or to attend. In numberless ways that we live out God’s commandments, we’re free to love our neighbors. We’re part of the great family who was set free from bondage so that we might love God more than anything else and love our neighbors as ourselves.
Pentecost 14 A / Proper 18
September 6, 2020
God Is God, and Pharaoh Is Not
When Moses was a baby, Pharaoh had commanded that all the newborn boys among the Hebrew people he had enslaved were to be thrown into the Nile. Against all odds, Moses survived in his little ark, was cared for by his own mother, and then raised by Pharaoh’s daughter.
Pentecost 14 A / Proper 18 September 6, 2020
Exodus 14:10-31 Pastor Susan Henry
Matthew 18:15-20 House of Prayer Lutheran Church
Grace to you and peace from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
God Is God, and Pharaoh Is Not
When Moses was a baby, Pharaoh had commanded that all the newborn boys among the Hebrew people he had enslaved were to be thrown into the Nile. Against all odds, Moses survived in his little ark, was cared for by his own mother, and then raised by Pharaoh’s daughter. After he killed an Egyptian who was beating one of the Hebrew laborers, Moses fled, married a nice Midianite girl, and spent his days as a shepherd, tending his father-in-law Jethro’s flock. One day, out near the mountain of God, he turned aside to see a strange sight – a bush that burned but was not consumed.
From the bush, God speaks, revealing God’s name to Moses after calling him to go to Pharaoh and demand that God’s people be set free from slavery. “Whom am I to go to Pharaoh?” Moses asks, and God answers, “I will be with you.” Moses does his best to get out of this unexpected and unwanted role, even pleading, “O my Lord, please send someone else.” But God does not send someone else. God sends Moses, and with Aaron his brother beside him, they confront the Pharaoh, over and over again. This is not the same Pharaoh who sought Moses’ life, but, as Old Testament scholar Walter Bruggeman puts it, “You’ve seen one Pharaoh, you’ve seen ‘em all.”
In ancient Egypt, a Pharaoh was a king and more than a king. A Pharaoh was a god. Arrogance and entitlement came with the position. A Pharaoh was used to always having his own way, to having absolute power and to saying no to anyone and anything that threatened that power. While scripture says that God will harden Pharaoh’s heart, the rabbis of old understood that to mean that stubbornness was such a habit of thought and revealed such an addiction to his own power that Pharaoh was really no longer free to act in other ways. He would dig his own grave, so to speak – but he would take the Egyptians to their deaths with him.
When Moses and Aaron first go to Pharaoh, they say, “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, ‘Let my people go so that they may celebrate a festival to me in the wilderness.” Pharaoh replies, “Who is the Lord, that I should heed him and let Israel go? I do not know the Lord, and I will not let Israel go.’” Pharaoh and God are now on a collision course. God reveals God’s power through nature itself in a series of plagues that wreak havoc in Egypt. Again and again, Aaron or Moses bring God’s demand for freedom for God’s people. Again and again, the Pharaoh refuses, and the consequences of his refusal are devastating to the environment and to his own people. The Nile is turned to blood, then frogs come out of the river and the Egyptians find them in their beds and in their bowls, and after that, a siege of gnats afflict the people and their animals. But since Pharaoh’s own magicians can replicate these phenomena, Pharaoh is unmoved.
Next, swarms of flies fill the land and the Egyptians’ houses, although, in Goshen where the Hebrews live, there are no flies – nor do any of the other plagues affect the Hebrew people. Then disease kills the Egyptians’ livestock – “the horses, the donkeys, the camels, the herds, and the flocks.” After that, sores and boils fester on the animals and the people. Despite these disasters that befall only the Pharaoh’s own people, he digs in his heels each time and he remains hard-hearted.
Thunder and lightning and heavy hail beat down the crops and shatter trees, ruining the wheat and the barley, and Pharaoh finally says, “The Lord is in the right, and I and my people are in the wrong. . . . I will let you go; you need stay no longer.” But when the hail ceases, true to form, Pharaoh refuses to let the people go, and both he and his officials further harden their hearts.
But God is not taking Pharaoh’s “no” for an answer, so locusts now fill the land, eating whatever the hail has not destroyed and filling the Egyptians’ houses like nobody has ever seen. Now even Pharaoh’s officials appeal to him, saying, “Can’t you understand that Egypt is ruined? Let those people go!” Pharaoh calls Moses and Aaron to him yet again and says that the Hebrew men may go out into the wilderness to worship, but there’s no way he’s letting the rest of them, along with their flocks and herds, go. The locusts go, but he does not let the people go.
And then, darkness falls on Egypt for three days – the heavy kind of darkness that you can feel, total darkness where you can’t see your hand in front of your face. But in Goshen, where God’s people live, there is light. Pharaoh summons Moses again and says, “Go! Take all your people, even the children, but you must leave your flocks and herds behind.” But after the darkness is gone, Pharaoh again goes back on his word.
God tells Moses that there is one more plague to come, after which the Pharaoh will drive God’s people away. Every firstborn in Egypt – from Pharaoh’s own household to the Egyptians’ livestock – will die that night. And then Pharaoh will know that God is God, and Pharaoh is not. The Hebrew people are to use some of the blood of a slaughtered lamb to mark their doorposts so that God’s judgment will pass over them that night. In the night, around midnight, scripture tells us, “there was a loud cry in Egypt, for there was not a house without someone dead.” In the night, the Pharaoh calls for Moses and says “Go away from my people. . . . Go worship the Lord, as you said. Take your flocks and your herds, as you said, and be gone!”
We read that “The Egyptians urged the people to hasten their departure from the land, for they said, ‘We shall all be dead.’ So the people took their dough before it was leavened, with their kneading bowls wrapped up in their cloaks on their shoulders. The Israelites had done as Moses told them; they had asked the Egyptians for jewelry of silver and gold, and for clothing, and the Lord had given the people favor in the sight of the Egyptians so that they let them have what they asked. And so they plundered the Egyptians.”
After four hundred years of enslavement, the whole Hebrew people – a vast number -- leave Egypt with their children and their flocks and herds, and they go as far as Succoth, where they bake unleavened cakes of the dough they had prepared before the Egyptians drove them away. God led the people on a roundabout way, going before them in a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night, so that they camped near the sea.
Not surprisingly, it wasn’t long before Pharaoh regretted letting God’s people – Egypt’s slave labor – go free. Setting out after them with his vast army on horses and his officials in hundreds of chariots, Pharaoh pursued the Hebrew people who were traveling by foot. He caught up with them where they were camped by the sea.
Exodus 14:10-31; 15:20-21
(“When Israel Was in Egypt Land,” verses 1-2)
10As Pharaoh drew near, the Israelites looked back, and there were the Egyptians advancing on them. In great fear the Israelites cried out to the LORD. 11They said to Moses, "Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us, bringing us out of Egypt? 12Is this not the very thing we told you in Egypt, 'Let us alone and let us serve the Egyptians'? For it would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness." 13But Moses said to the people, "Do not be afraid, stand firm, and see the deliverance that the LORD will accomplish for you today; for the Egyptians whom you see today you shall never see again. 14The LORD will fight for you, and you have only to keep still." 15Then the LORD said to Moses, "Why do you cry out to me? Tell the Israelites to go forward. 16But you lift up your staff, and stretch out your hand over the sea and divide it, that the Israelites may go into the sea on dry ground. 17Then I will harden the hearts of the Egyptians so that they will go in after them; and so I will gain glory for myself over Pharaoh and all his army, his chariots, and his chariot drivers. 18And the Egyptians shall know that I am the LORD, when I have gained glory for myself over Pharaoh, his chariots, and his chariot drivers." 19The angel of God who was going before the Israelite army moved and went behind them; and the pillar of cloud moved from in front of them and took its place behind them. 20It came between the army of Egypt and the army of Israel. And so the cloud was there with the darkness, and it lit up the night; one did not come near the other all night.
21Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea. The LORD drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night, and turned the sea into dry land; and the waters were divided.
22The Israelites went into the sea on dry ground, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left.
23The Egyptians pursued, and went into the sea after them, all of Pharaoh's horses, chariots, and chariot drivers. 24At the morning watch the LORD in the pillar of fire and cloud looked down upon the Egyptian army, and threw the Egyptian army into panic. 25He clogged their chariot wheels so that they turned with difficulty. The Egyptians said, "Let us flee from the Israelites, for the LORD is fighting for them against Egypt." 26Then the LORD said to Moses, "Stretch out your hand over the sea, so that the water may come back upon the Egyptians, upon their chariots and chariot drivers." 27So Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and at dawn the sea returned to its normal depth.
As the Egyptians fled before it, the LORD tossed the Egyptians into the sea. 28The waters returned and covered the chariots and the chariot drivers, the entire army of Pharaoh that had followed them into the sea; not one of them remained. 29But the Israelites walked on dry ground through the sea, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left. 30Thus the LORD saved Israel that day from the Egyptians; and Israel saw the Egyptians dead on the seashore. 31Israel saw the great work that the LORD did against the Egyptians. So the people feared the LORD and believed in the LORD and in his servant Moses.
Then the prophet Miriam, Aaron’s sister, took a tambourine in her hand; and all the women went out with her with tambourines and with dancing. And Miriam sang to them:
“Sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously;
horse and rider he has thrown into the sea.”
God is God, and Pharaoh is not. God’s way of being in the world is liberating. Pharaoh’s way ignores the cries of those who are oppressed. God keeps God’s word; Pharaoh’s word means nothing. For the people of God, God’s presence is a blessing. For Pharaoh’s own people, hard-heartedness is costly not only to him, but to all of them and to the land itself. Such is the way of God and the way of Pharaohs throughout the ages.
Lutheran scholar Terence Fretheim notes that, in the ancient Near East, people believed that “the morality of the king influences the well-being of creation and the fertility of the land. As a result, a king who oppresses his subjects risks the ecological ruin of his country.” From this perspective, the plagues are, he says, “the result of the breakdown in the moral order because of the actions of Pharaoh. . . . The plagues signify the undoing of creation for the Egyptians as a result of Pharaoh’s exploitative actions.” With the well-being of the earth itself at risk in our own day, we are mindful of how human actions may be either costly or renewing to the created world.
Do you see why this is a foundational story for those who worship the God whom we’ve been coming to know through the stories of our ancestors in faith? God makes promises and keeps them. God hears, God sees, God saves. Blessing is what God gives. Compassion is at the heart of who God is. Setting people free – from domination, from fear, from hunger, from hard-heartedness, from sin – is what God does. God saves through powerful acts like the Exodus and seemingly powerless acts like dying on a cross.
We immerse ourselves in Old Testament stories in part because these are the stories Jesus knew. These are the stories that helped shape his understanding of who he was. When we speak of Jesus as “the lamb of God,” we are drawn back to the slaughtered lamb whose blood marked the doorposts of the Hebrews whom God would soon lead from slavery to freedom, from a death-dealing Pharaoh’s grasp on their lives to a life-giving God’s opening of new possibilities.
This doesn’t mean that there are not problematic things in this story. Would the God we know in Jesus take the lives of Egyptian children and break their parents’ hearts in order to break open Pharaoh’s hard heart? Jesus admonished those who thought he was too busy or didn’t care about the children whose mothers brought them to him. And Jesus told the disciples who wanted to call down fire from heaven on those who’d rejected Jesus to knock it off. There is more to God than we can comprehend – and more to God than is revealed in the stories of humankind’s earliest experiences of relationship with God.
The death of the Egyptians at the Red Sea is celebrated in Miriam’s song, but it makes me a little queasy. There’s a midrash about it that goes like this. When the Hebrew people were rejoicing on the far side of the sea, the angels in heaven wanted to join in the song of victory. But God refused to let them, reminding them that “Those whom I created are dying, and you may not rejoice over that.”
We can rejoice, however, over the great and small ways that God is still at work saving people and setting them free. When we know the saving story of the Exodus, we may have eyes to see the Pharaohs of our own time and the burdens borne by those they oppress. And though we are not Moses, God may have work for us to do – inner work and work out in our communities. Hard work that asks us to reflect on when we ourselves are among the hard-hearted or among those afraid of losing our power. Compassionate work that draws us to whomever God is setting free and blessing with the abundant life God desires for all. And joyful work that brings us together in praise of the God who hears and sees and saves.