Monday, October 31, 2011

Fulfilling our Baptismal Vows- Prayer

Scriptures for Sunday, October 30th:


Today we begin a four week journey where we explore baptism, the vows we take, the grace it provides, as a way to examine our own commitment as individual Christians and as a church.  We are at the time of year where we are called to lay out a vision for the future of our congregation.  We do this in several formats-  through our charge conference, through a strategic planning meeting this Thursday, and through our commitment campaign that will culminate on November 20.
The fullness of that commitment can be found in two vows that we take during the baptismal process.  The first is the vow we take as a congregation, and the second is the vow we take upon confirmation or upon joining the church.
Let's start with the congregational vow in baptism-
With God’s help we will proclaim the good news and live according to the example of Christ.We will surround these persons with a community of love and forgiveness, that they may grow in their trust of God, and be found faithful in their service to others.We will pray for them, that they may be true disciples who walk in the way that leads to life.
In other words, we make a significant commitment that should never be taken lightly-  we are declaring that we hold ourselves responsible for creating the environment in which Elaina (the child we baptized during the service) here will grow.  We are making a solemn vow to create the kind of loving atmosphere in our church, in our community, and in our world, that will enable Elaina to grow up trusting God so much that she too may seek to follow our Lord Jesus Christ in serving others.
Today’s scripture- of Joshua leading the Hebrew people across the Jordan, is one of the  most important pivot points in scripture.  The new generation of God’s chosen people are finally crossing into the promised land, but they can only do so because someone else has prepared the way.
I did not realize the significance of this story for today until I heard then Senator Obama speak in 2007 at the commemoration of the Selma Voting rights march.  In 1965, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. led over 600 civil rights marchers to demand equal access to the ballot.  The marchers were attacked by state and local police with billy clubs and tear gas.
So, on the 42nd anniversary of this “Bloody Sunday” march, Senator Obama said 

“So I just want to talk a little about Moses and Aaron and Joshua, because we are in the presence today of a lot of Moseses. We're in the presence today of giants whose shoulders we stand on, people who battled, not just on behalf of African Americans but on behalf of all of America; that battled for America’s soul, that shed blood , that endured taunts and formant and in some cases gave -- torment and in some cases gave the full measure of their devotion.Like Moses, they challenged Pharaoh, the princes, powers who said that some are atop and others are at the bottom, and that's how it's always going to be.  My very existence might not have been possible had it not been for some of the folks here today.”
That generation of civil rights workers endured considerable pain and even death to help to create the more just and kingdom centered world that we live in today.  While we may not yet be at the promised land, we are significantly closer today because of their work.
The people of Israel made a very similar sacrifice for future generations.  They dared to challenge Pharoah, to wander through the desert, to risk starvation to find a future in which their own children would be able to grow and blossom.  But, as is often the case, they create a more just world through their blood, sweat and tears and pass long before they can ever experience it.
When that generation, and when Moses, passed away, it would have been almost natural for them to shrink back in fear and return to the desert.  After all, who was this young upstart in Joshua, someone who had not paid his dues, to lead these people who had suffered so much?  It had only been 30 days since Moses had died-  how dare Joshua be so insensitive.
And really, was the desert so bad?  They had survived for 40 years after all!  And isn’t hanging on and surviving enough?  Shouldn’t we be happy with that?
Have you ever seen a church, a family, or a person who has adopted that desert mentality?  That all time, effort and energy is devoted to simply surviving?  Of course, that is completely appropriate at times!  If we cannot survive, how can we ever hope to be fruitful.  A survival first mentality can help to preserve a person or a church through its darkest days.  It ensures that there can be some vitality in the future when things improve.  
The problem can come when its time to leave the desert.  “Look- I survived this way for 40 years!  Now you want me to change?!?!  I know this works- I won’t die this way!”
That is sort of half true.  You see, the Israelites had arrived at the Jordan before.  And they got scared and turned back.  And though that generation survived, they would die without seeing the promised land.  Who knows what would have happened if they had refused to leave the desert once again.  Eventually, even in survival mode, we all must pass away.
So, the people come face to face with the Jordan.  And the river is raging.  Scripture says it was overflowing the banks.  Throughout the Hebrew Bible, water, especially raging water , stands in for chaos.  So, the people who have survived in the desert must confront this teaming chaos to move forward.  And they must do so led by this pip-squeek who has proved nothing!
And yet, they manage to shake their fears, to trust their new leader, to cross over!  How do they do it?  
They “Draw near and hear the words of the Lord your God.”  We have a word for hearing the words of God-  we call it prayer.  Now that might seem a little odd, because we usually think of prayer as us saying things to God.  But in its fullest sense, prayer is supposed to open us up to hear from God.  That can come in many forms.  For some, it might be a vision or an auditory message from God.  This is what happens to Joshua.  But, for most of us, this is not the form hearing from God takes.  It is more subtle, it is the way that we feel calm after we make the right decision, it is the way we get excited about new ideas, and it is when we look back and can see in retrospect that the decision we made led to new life and new creation.  For me, the most frequent way I feel like I can hear from God is in reading.  Sometimes its scripture and I’m trying to train myself to read in such a way that I am more open to hearing from God in scripture, but often it is the works of other Christians who are sharing their understanding of God.  That’s why we do the reading with the pastor series-  I hope you get something out of it, but even more, I hope it creates a discipline through which I can learn to hear God.
How do you hear God?  Is it with the Monday night prayer group?  With a daily scripture reading?  With a walk in the woods?  With singing a favorite hymn?  Its important, especially now, to try and determine how you best hear from God.  Because today, we have an important commitment to make.  We are declaring that we will listen to God to create the best place for Elaina here to grow and prosper.  Its crucial that we listen to God as we try to envision this future, because after we hear from God-  there is a second important step.
We need to get into the river and get muddy.  Its orderly to keep surviving.  Its messy to step into the chaos and seek new life.  We are afraid we might get swept away.  That we might sink into the mud.  That rather than being filled with new life, that we might perish.  But, my brothers and sisters, if we have truly listened to God, we can be assured that when we step forward in faith, we will find dry land.  When you joined this congregation, you committed to faithfully participate in its ministries through prayer, presence, gift and service.  As we remember our baptismal vows and as we commit to the future of the church, let us renew our commitment for listening to God through prayer.  When we do that, we will find the dry land; we will find that God’s grace allows us to be reborn.  And we will find that we are ready to nurture Elaina and all of the other members of her generation to create a world and a church in which they can prosper.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Sue Kertianis- Reaction to Yom Kippur Service

The Yom Kippur service was a good idea to experience something different in our worship service. As we moved along through the service you could really feel the passion in the music and sense the congregation’s anticipation as we started different sections.

I personally felt as one link in an unending circle – we were all connected in this service. Yet we were all individually asking for God’s forgiveness. During the confession part – the outward tapping on your chest – I strongly felt God’s presence … the responses were genuinely heartfelt.

Immediately following the service, I did follow Pastor Jared’s suggestion and asked someone to forgive me, not so much that I had sinned again that person, but that I was not doing enough for them and prayed that I would be a better person.

I think this service brought home the fact that we need to be quick to ask for forgiveness and more aware of God’s direction in our lives.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Cathrine Stadulis- Reaction to a Service in Honor of Yom Kippur

When Pastor Jared asked if I would be willing to write a reflection on this Sunday’s service, and that said service would focus on Yom Kippur and atonement, I had to laugh to myself.
As a former Catholic, raised in a very Catholic family and having two strict Polish-Catholic grandparents (I still feel slightly guilty about eating meat on Fridays,) the concept of sinning and asking for forgiveness for one’s sins is hardly a new concept for me. I remember vividly going through my first Rite of Reconciliation in grade school – attending special meetings at the church with other kids in my class and trying to figure out, along with my friends, what exactly qualified as a sin and whether I needed to confess it or not. Did fighting with my brothers make it on the list as a sin? Should I confess to thinking mean thoughts about certain kids in my class?
So, writing about a Yom Kippur service, where the entire focus is on sinning and atoning for one’s sins, I thought, would be an easy task. And yet, three days later, I still find it hard to write out exactly how Sunday’s service affected me.
Some things are easy to write down. For example, after attending this Sunday’s service, it would seem that the Jewish and Catholic/Christian faiths don’t stray too far from each other when it comes to defining sin. Both faiths have quite a list of both major and minor transgressions. I always liked the Catholic "I have sinned in what I have done and in what I have failed to do," and I liked the Jewish "we have acted presumptuously… we have been stiff-necked… we have gone astray."
On the more difficult side of things, I still have very divided feelings about sin and atonement, and Sunday’s service was, at times, hard for me.
Growing up, my parish priest would state "arrogant are we to think that there is any sin we can commit that God will not forgive." As a young adult, I remember standing in church next to my father and rolling my eyes as he would beat his fist on his breast during the confession of sin portion of the Mass. All I could think was, "What’s the point?" For years, that portion of the Catholic Mass was merely lip service to me; a time to make a statement but not really think about or intend the words I was saying.
After all, God has assured his forgiveness of us on many occasions. Why must we list out what we have done; why must we beat our breast? God knows what we did and if we are truly sorry for it. Why must we ask?
These are still questions I struggle with now as an older adult. To stand with my new congregation in the Methodist faith and to say words and perform acts that I have always associated with "silly" Catholicism and to see that they are, in fact, part of the original Jewish faith, was very difficult. To beat my breast in public, something I always thought of as an over-the-top and melodramatic action, and to try to mean it was extremely hard to do. To speak out the list of 15 sins, both major and minor, even with all the others of the congregation, was also extremely difficult.
Why so difficult? I’m still not sure. Perhaps now, as someone who is trying to really live my faith and have true intent behind my words, it is harder to admit my sins, both to others and to myself. Perhaps, after several very emotionally hard years, I feel that I truly need to ask God for forgiveness. Perhaps because there have been times when I felt that God has never forgiven me my transgressions, as I did not truly mean my words before.
Despite all of these questions and difficulties, though, I left Sunday’s service feeling forgiven, if still filled with questions. But I am grateful, very grateful, that Pastor Jared and IUMC gave me the opportunity to experience an abbreviated Yom Kippur.
One of the reasons I chose to join IUMC is that I have left more services thinking, and feeling, like someone who has really heard the word of God. And this past Sunday, I feel like I truly received some of God’s forgiveness. And for that I am truly thankful.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Maryanne Schneider's reaction to A Service in Honor of Yom Kippur

When Pastor Jared asked me to post something of my impressions of the service today I brought out pen and paper and had pen in air to jot down every exceptional thing about the service. After making a few notes I decided to put my pen away and just sit back and experience the service.

"This day for the Jews is like our Easter", said Jared. 
I used to think as a child that this sacrifice of innocent animals was pagan and cruel because the true meaning of why they did it and why God expected it was not clear to me then. The slaughtering of their prized lambs and goats must have torn them to pieces. But they were obedient to God.
God sacrificed his most precious possession: His son Jesus. Another thing that came to my mind was that it was one thing to sacrifice an animal but to sacrifice a human and your own son had to be so much more horrible. I could not bear to sacrifice one of my children to wipe away anyone's sins.
The service went on to the confession of sins. There are a lot of sins out there. Some you wouldn't think of as bad sins but they shared the same level as all sins. One no better than another. All needed to be confessed to please God. 
Quite meaningful was the fact that in a group confession we were not just confessing our own sins but we as a group were confessing and asking forgiveness for all those in the group. There is power in numbers and I think the Jews have that figured out. 
Our repentance must be TRUE to be accepted by God and by our repentance we are calling God to come to us and meet us with his love and compassion. 
In confession we are making a sacrifice. The sacrifice of our pride. We submit ourselves to humility in admitting we did wrong in the eyes of God. We show remorse for the wrongs we have done and we can feel cleansed.
The music by the choir was sung in Hebrew. Once being in a choir and having to sing in Latin I know how difficult it must be to sing unfamiliar words with meaning. The music was truly meaningful in the way it was sung: Reverently and with passion.
The confession in which we beat our fist over our heart and repeated the words in Hebrew that Jared led us with was very moving. Although on the lighter side, and I always find a lighter side during the oddest and most solemn of times, I thought to myself......You know when we try to speak the language of a country we are visiting and we mispronounce the words it comes up with a different meaning?
All I can say is that I hope I was not saying something much different than the original meaning when I mispronounced them. Something that would make me go back and say another confession.
I did confess to someone after the service for a wrong I did to them as suggested by Jared. I told my husband Al that I was sorry that sometimes I take him for granted. 
Taking something for granted is never good. Taking for granted that God will forgive us if we do not sacrifice something for him has to be one of the worst sins against Him.

A service in honor of Yom Kippur

Normally on Mondays, I like to post the sermon from the previous day's worship.  However, this last week we did not have a sermon!  Instead, we read and prayed and sung together liturgy from Park Synagogue's Yom Kippur service.  I have the privilege of singing in the High Holy Day choir and thus, even as a gentile, have a bit of insight into the vast spirituality contained in the service.  (For more of a primer, check out this introduction by Rabbi Jonathan Kraus.)  Thus, I wanted to bring a little taste of that moving religious experience to our congregation.  However, I'm not comfortable reprinting the prayers in this forum as I am sure their are copyright implications.  Instead, here are a few bits of information to give you a feel.

The Yom Kippur service comes to us from the sixteenth chapter of Leviticus.  As part of the Torah, this is of course revered scripture that is shared by Jews and Christians.  However, we at times fail to appreciate the depth of spirituality in our Hebrew Bible (which is often referred to as the Old Testament).  

The actual Yom Kippur services at Park Synagogue take place over 2 days and last for approximately 13 hours.  We had about 20 minutes!  So we spent the bulk of the time going over what I consider to be the spiritual high point of the service- the confession of the sins that take place during the Avodah service.  I do want to include two quotes from the prayer book ( The New Mahzor for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, Pg. 637) to give you a sense of its meaning:

The Avodah
For our ancestors in ancient days, the Temple in Jerusalem was the symbol of God’s presence.  In the Temple sacrifices were offered daily on behalf of the entire nation.  On the Sabbath and Festivals, special sacrifices marked the holiness of the day.  Thus did the Temple bear testimony to Israel’s consecration to God.
The Temple has long since been destroyed; yet, the remembrance of it lives on in the heart of our people.  
When we recall the ancient Temple, we link ourselves to our past; we sense again that we are part of one people, dedicated to the service of God and God’s Torah of righteousness and truth.
Today our worship is one of prayer and praise.  But when we think of the piety of our ancestors, who from their meager supply of cattle and grain, offered their best possessions in the service of God, we feel called upon to devote not only our words but also our substance to God’s service.
Milton Steinberg (adapted) 

The Ritual of Confession
On Yom Kippur, the sacrificial rites in the ancient Temple, highlighted by the ritual confession, were conducted by the High Priest.   On this day, and on it alone, he entered the Holy of Holies, entry to which was denied to all others.  On this day he made confession three times, humbling himself before God and seeking forgiveness for his own sins and those of his household, for the sins of the priestly order, and for the sins of the entire House of Israel.
Ario S. Hyams (adapted)
Thus, we prayed together our confessions on behalf of ourselves and the entire community.  As was explained to me by one of my Jewish friends, when they make their confession on Yom Kippur, it is a confession as a community.  Thus, not every single thing confessed needs to apply directly to you to confess it.  You are confessing with the community, and certainly someone in the community has transgressed in that particular way.  So also is the community confessing to you as it is quite likely at least one of the confessions applies to you.

The heart of the confession is the Ashamnu which we prayed and sang together.  The English translation of the text is as follows (pg. 649):

We have trespassed; we have dealt treacherously;we have robbed; we have spoken slander;we have acted perversely; we have done wrong;we have acted presumptuously; we have done violence;we have practiced deceit; we have counseled evil;we have spoken falsehood; we have scoffed;we have revolted; we have blasphemed;we have rebelled; we have committed iniquity; we have transgressed; we have oppressed; we have been stiff-necked; we have acted wickedly;we  have dealt corruptly; we have committed abomination;we have gone astray; we have led others astray.

After concluding our confessions, we read a text of reassurance for the forgiveness of our sins- 

When repentance and change seem too hard,
We draw strength from the Divine promise;
For on the road to true repentance,
We are met by God’s love and compassion.
Following the service, I read from the tenth chapter of Hebrews where Jesus is depicted as the high priest making the ultimate sacrifice for the sins of the community.  I think we can both affirm that forgiveness is ultimately mediated by Jesus Christ without invalidating the rituals of confession embraced by both the Jewish and Christian faiths.  We still need to take the time to ask for forgiveness- even if that forgiveness is freely offered.

Since I cannot reproduce the entire service here, I asked several members of the congregation to write up their own thoughts following what was a very different service.  I hope you will appreciate their lightly edited reflections as they are posted this week.  It will be great to see the diversity of the responses!


Pastor Jared

Friday, October 14, 2011

Reading with the Pastor - In God's Presence

What is this "thing" called prayer? At sometime or another in our lives we have asked that question. Is it possible that the God of creation actually listens to and answers our prayers or are we having a monologue with ourselves? For those of us who have struggled with these and other questions concerning prayer, "In God's Presence" offers invaluable insights about this wonderful gift of communication.

Marjorie Suchocki shares with us her reflections about prayer from both a theological and personal perspective. She leads us through the various conceptions of what we think prayer "is" and shows us another view that moves beyond our well worn myths of communicating with God. We are challenged to look and examine every facet of prayer from the way we view God to offering prayers of thanksgiving and praise.
We will gather to discuss the book on Thursday, November 17th at 7:00 pm. A quick search of the library systems did not reveal any local copies, but used copies of this book can be found online for approximately $5.00

Please contact the church office if you would like us to order the book for you.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Saturday Sabbath Cinema - Janie Jones

After a summer hiatus, it’s back!

On Saturday, November 12th at around noon, we’ll head to Cinemark to catch the first showing of Janie Jones. The story is about a musician content with his rock-n-roll lifestyle whose life is turned upside down with the arrival of a 13 year-old daughter he never knew he had. Left to raise
Janie Jones, Ethan and Janie embark on a road trip of music and father-daughter bonding. Check out the trailer here as I found it to be quite moving: 

 Following the movie, we’ll head back to church to discuss the film. Hope to see you there!

Update:  RSVP for the event here.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Where are we as a church?- Pastor's edition

On Monday, October 10th, we held our annual charge conference.  Below is the full text of my pastor's report for that day:

Mission Statement-  The Independence United Methodist Church, along with other Methodist churches, holds our purpose to be that of making and being disciples of Jesus Christ, in service to God and to the World.  At the Independence United Methodist Church we are committed to growing in the faith through worship, study and service.
This last year has continued our transition from a congregation at rest into a congregation that is excited about actively taking steps to carry out the work that God has entrusted in us.  While the ultimate goal and the specifics of the work to which we are called remain hazy, we have been putting into place the necessary foundations for launching forth into even more radical life changing ministry.
We continue to grow into our understanding of what it means to be a radically hospitable church and people.  The baseline here was great-  many members of our congregation actively welcomed new comers .  Many of the faith stories of those who have joined or those who have recently began attending include the warm welcome they received when they first arrived here.  We have begun the work of sending hand written notes to first time visitors and are continuing to look at ways we can overhaul the way we welcome people.  We also are actively seeking out ways to welcome and show love to our community.  One simple example was opening up the church during home days so people could use the restrooms and serving water to those who sat on the church lawn to watch the parade.
Our worship service continues to evolve in a direction that is interactive and relevant.  The congregation has gotten used to the fact that worship will look different from Sunday to Sunday and they now come to expect that I will ask questions and ask them to take active steps to discuss or act out liturgically the message of the day during the service.  We have also hired a dynamic new choir director who is helping to continue to build upon our strong music program while expanding our styles and offerings.  We also reformed a monthly worship committee so that worship planning can be done more collaboratively and we can begin to dream about ways our worship can be enhanced.
I am especially proud of the direction the congregation has taken in intentional faith development.  In this past year we have launched a new weekly prayer group, a newly reformed youth group and enhanced and realigned our Sunday School classes to better match with the scripture and themes of worship.  All of these have been lay lead.  In addition, we started a new social issue forums group this summer that allowed nearly 20 individuals to come together to discuss and pray about our Social Principals and its connection to our faith.  Furthermore, I have had several members approach me with ideas of new groups that they want to help launch.  When we come together in ministry, we truly are stronger.
The highlight of our missions program this year is the agreement to partner with Pearl Rd. UMC on community meals every other month.  Though this program is in its infancy, I have already seen lives transformed in our congregation by interacting with and serving some of our or economically challenged neighbors in Cleveland.  We will continue to seek out hands on opportunities to engage in mission that changes lives- both our own and those we serve.
I am ecstatic about the progress the congregation has made in reigniting our sense of stewardship.  In 2009, we paid 18% of our district and conference apportionments.  By 2010, we had boosted this to 55%.  Through the end of August this year, we had already paid 49% off our apportionments and I conservatively project we will pay at least 80% by year end.  Furthermore, the finance committee has covenanted that 2012 will be the year we finally pay all of our apportionments.  The fact that we have done this without significantly cutting back on our ministry and while increasing our other missional giving is a testament to the hard work of the committee, the generosity of the congregation and is a sign of the movement of the Holy Spirit here in our midst.
Let us praise God for the good work that is being done amongst us!
Goals for continuing formation for 2012:
Radical Hospitality_____Work to gather feedback from those who are relatively new to the congregation as to how they were welcomed and how we can improve.  We will also reorient an existing committee or create a new group whose exclusive focus is on hospitality.  
Passionate Worship____I will work to help us identify the specific gifts contained within this congregation to create a unique worship experience.  I will work with the newly reformed worship committee to identify how we can vary our worship offerings to appeal to a broader range of people.  We will also explore adding multimedia equipment so we can communicate the gospel in different ways.
Intentional Faith Development__I will work to determine who would be willing to lead new small groups and how to identify those who might partake in new or existing small groups.  I also covenant to clarify what are the minimum characteristics needed to call something a faithful small group while still allowing flexibility in style and preference.

Risk-Taking Mission and Service___I will work to help the congregation determine how they can tell their faith stories.  We also need to continue to explore the needs of both Independence and the surrounding communities (especially the west side of Cleveland).  We will also work on a way to allow members to express and include their individual mission work not organized by the church as part of our faith story.
Extravagant Generosity___I will work with the stewardship chair and the finance committee to better communicate the state of our giving and of our spending.  I will also work with the finance committee to live up to our commitment to fully pay apportionments in 2012.  

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Where are we as a church? - Lay Leader's Edition

Below is the report that our Lay Leader, Ted Lux, gave at our annual charge conference.  I'm so grateful for his leadership and his enthusiasm!

We pray that the Holy Spirit descends upon us and that through our spiritual energy we are able to praise and please the Lord in our faith journey as a congregation of the United Methodist Church.
I would imagine that the phrase “small but mighty” aptly describes any number of Methodist congregations including that in Independence.
Each Sunday morning and through various activities throughout the week we attempt to communicate with and hear God’s direction.
To that end in the past year a variety of programs were offered. On Monday night the members themselves with no clergy leadership meet for prayer, study and meditation. It may be just a handful of people and I’m certain it resembles what happens in most churches but upon departing the participants know that they have been in the presence of the Lord and that he has heard our prayers and smiled upon our goal of drawing closer to Him. Many times the evening includes taking the prayer request list from the previous day’s bulletin and carefully considering each individual and their need for healing and grace.
Our youth and their adult leadership continue to embrace God’s call not only in weekly meetings but in their annual mission trip beyond our church and state borders. Our young people learn first half what it means to sacrifice and to experience what it is like to be God’s emissaries.
We are very proud that during the summer our minister immersed himself in leading two weekly discussion groups on social issues that need our attention. They tackled issues that many times confound our souls and make us wonder if we are doing enough to be true to our Christian principles.
The weekly worship services more frequently take new paths to discovering God’s word through “audience participation,” drama and song. Each member of the congregation may engage himself at an individual level of comfort but most come away with new perspectives of worshipping the Lord.
We attempt to be more visible in the community. Our minister offers the prayer at the beginning of City Council meetings and our choir added to the arrival of Santa Claus last December with carols reminding everyone that Santa is only a trimming on the celebration that is Christmas.
There is much to do on this congregational faith journey as we attempt to share our faith with ourselves and with others. We pray that the Holy Spirit will energize us to a greater commitment to be disciples of Jesus Christ.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Whose world is it anyway?

Scriptures for Sunday, October 9th

Psalm 99
Matthew 22:15-22


           Some of you probably grew up reading out of the King James version of the Bible.  To the best of my knowledge, I never did.  Nor, in fact, am I particularly enamored with the translation as its been found to be replete with errors and the Shakespearean language obscures more than it imparts, but there are passages of scripture for which the King James translation remains most prominent for me.  Psalm 23 and the Lord’s prayer are two instances; today’s scripture is a third.  In its translation, Jesus replies to the Herodians question by declaring “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's; and unto God the things that are God's.”
This is a passage that has been quoted over and over again “as a solemn statement about the relationship between civil and religious authority, between politics and religion, or, in Christian terms, between “church and state.”  It has been most commonly understood to mean that there are two separate realms of human life, one religious and one political.  In the first, we are to “render to God,” and in the second, we are to render to Caesar.”  from the The Last Week
What this means in practice has varied considerably, but generally it has been used to tell Christians that we are to submit to the will of the state.  Perhaps the most famous formulation of this is by Martin Luther, the founder of Lutheranism.  In a sermon on this passage, Luther declared 

And with these words he also confirms the worldly sword or government. They had hoped he would condemn it and speak against it; he does not do it, however, but praises earthly government and commands to render unto it what is due to it. It is therefore his desire that there should be magistrates, princes and masters, whom we are to obey, be they what they may and what they list; neither should we ask whether they possess and exercise government and authority justly or unjustly. We should only pay heed to that power and authority which is good, for it is ordered and instituted by God...Thus one must also bear the authority of the ruler. If he abuses it, I am not therefore to bear him a grudge, nor take revenge of and punish him with my hands. One must obey him solely for God's sake, for he stands in God's stead. Let them impose taxes as intolerable as they may: one must obey them and, suffer everything patiently, for God's sake. Whether they do right or not, that will be taken care of in due time. If therefore your possessions, aye, your life and whatsoever you have, be taken from you by those in power, then you are to say: I give it to you willingly, I acknowledge you as my masters, gladly will I be obedient to you. Whether you use the power given to you by God well or ill, that is your affair.
This notion that there are two kingdoms, one Godly and one worldly, caught on during the enlightenment and has become very firmly entrenched in our ethos.  In fact, a representation of this became part of the first amendment to the US constitution and the notion of the separation of church and state is quite prominently featured in the writings of Thomas Jefferson.  So, the idea of interpreting this passage as laying down the boundaries between the spiritual and the secular life has considerable weight in both our religious and worldly traditions.
I believe strongly in paying attention to tradition in the church.  We owe a great debt of gratitude for the ways that Christians before us, including the great thinkers like Aquinas, Luther and Wesley, have understood the faith.  Though there is never a single understanding of scripture or faith, many dominant themes can emerge that help us in our interpretation of scripture and the spiritual life.  However, we are also called to read scripture with a critical eye; to never be habitual in our understanding of a passage and to utilize the best of modern scholarship to understand just what Jesus or the author of a particular part of the bible was trying to say.  And so, with all deference to these great thinkers, I must admit that I think they got this passage wrong.
I am not alone in this conclusion- many modern biblical scholars have asked Christians to look at this passage with new eyes.  So I will ask you to do the same-  forget for a moment what you may have always heard about this passage (don’t worry, you will have plenty of historical company to argue against me if you still disagree by the end of the sermon), lets try to bring fresh eyes and ears to this scripture.
First, we have to look at the context here.  For the last few weeks, we have been studying texts from Matthew that show him in a theological and political battle with various authorities.  Whether it be the Pharisees, the scribes, the temple officials or the Herodians, many have tried to discredit Jesus through their intense questioning.  Thus, a sort of debate has been playing out in the center of the Jewish religious world-  the temple in Jerusalem.  Before and after this question about taxes, Jesus is quizzed about the nature of his authority and then about the nature of resurrection.  When asked ‘By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?’” in Matthew 21:23, Jesus turns the authority question back on the askers and slips out of ever giving a straight answer.  When later asked about what happens in heaven if a woman has more than one husband during her life, Jesus dismisses the question as irrelevant born out of an incomplete understanding of eternal life.  Two questions-two answers meant not to illuminate, but to discredit the asker.
So, in between this, we have the Herodians asking this pesky question about taxes.  Let’s be clear, they put Jesus in a real tight spot.  

Considering that taxes were a means of Roman oppression and the inscription on the coin represented submission to Caesar, this is a dangerous question for Jesus. For the Israelites suffering under Roman imperialism, to answer in the affirmative would imply that Roman colonization is an appropriate form of governance and that God’s people should accept whatever form of government, no matter how repressive, they find themselves under... If Jesus had answered the question negatively he would have been openly calling for revolt against the ability of Rome to tax its people.   
(Resolution 5012 from 2008 UMC Book of Resolutions)

He likely would have been immediately executed.
So, in the midst of this dilemma, and given the context, why would we assume that Jesus is giving a straight answer to their question?  Why would we assume that Jesus is affirming the authority of Rome?  Could this not be another answer meant to discredit the questioner?

When they first ask the question, Jesus responds first by asking them to “Show me the coin used for the tax.”  The Herodians proceed to give him a denarius.  Believe it or not-  they have now fallen into a trap.  You see, there 

IS a specific coin that is required to be used to pay the Roman tax. It is a Roman coin. And on that coin is the image of the Roman Emperor. Such coins have been found by archaeologists, and printed on the coin would be the title, "Tiberius, Emperor, son of God." Thus the coin violates the commandments to have no other Gods except the Lord, and the commandment to not make any images of God. Possessing such a coin was extremely problematic for faithful, observant Jews because not having it meant running afoul of the Romans, and having it was a violation of core Torah law.  Jesus traps his adversaries by asking for the coin used to pay taxes. When one of them produces it - likely one the Herodians - it demonstrates their hypocrisy. How could an observant Jew - and a leader at that - have such a coin on their person?
In other words, by producing the coin, the Herodians have already been convicted-  they just don’t know it yet. So Jesus essentially flips the coin back and says if its really Caesar's, give it to him.  
So here is the question below the surface-  what doesn’t belong to God?  Is there anything on earth that belongs to Caesar?  Caesar may have the military might, but does the land belong to Caesar?  If Caesar is the most powerful emperor in the world, does that mean the world belongs to Caesar?  
No! a faithful Jew would cry out-  this is God’s world.  God is the creator, the sustainer, the redeemer of this universe.  How dare anyone claim that something, anything, belongs to anyone but God?
Alright, let me anticipate a question here.  If everything belongs to God, and nothing to Caesar, then their should be no separation of church and state?  Or, if you are really clever, you might say, wait, if money belongs to God and not to the state, that means I don’t have to pay my taxes, right?  Trust me, attaching this sermon to your 1040 is not going to absolve you.  I do promise to visit you in jail though.
No, I do think we can still testify to the importance of the role of civil governance.  The government has a critical role to promote the common good in society.  The church is not equipped to manage and run a program like Social Security or Medicare or Medicaid, but it is undeniable that these programs have helped to fulfill our Christian values of caring for the poor and the elderly.  Our public schools educate a far wider number of children then we ever taught when only the church provided for a child’s education.  While the church is a means of grace and should be a beacon of justice, Wayne Grudem has also argued that, “Human government is also a result of common grace. . . . One of the primary means God uses to restrain evil in the world is human government.”  (Resolution 5012 from 2008 UMC Book of Resolutions)
So, what then, does that mean to us?  How do we live out this tension? 
First, we have to acknowledge that there is no topic that is outside the realm of our faith.  That was one of the most prominent comments in our social issue forums-  “I never thought how this could be related to my faith.”  But, if we are going to claim that everything is God’s, this includes things like environmental issues, health care, sexuality, and education.
Secondly, we must inform ourselves on the issues and pray about how it relates to our faith.  If we are going to try to exercise our vote, our money and our time in a faithful way, we need to spend time in prayer and discussion about what a particular issue means in our larger scope of faith.  What does scripture call for in a circumstance?  Or, if there is no direct answer or if the scriptures conflict, what are the higher purposes that God is drawing us to?
Thirdly, we must learn to articulate a topic from both a faith and a secular perspective.  Let me give you an example-  I disagree with the death penalty.  I would lay down my objection based on the fact that God is the author of all life, and that all lives can be redeemed by God’s grace.  Therefore, it is wrong to institutionalize the practice of taking a life that is not ours to take.  But, if I were to argue this with a person who has a different understanding of God, then we would talk past each other.  My faith claims are exactly that-  an act of faith and thus not provable.  So while my faith has guided me in my decision to oppose the death penalty, I also arm myself with knowledge that it does not deter crime, that it is terribly inefficient use of our time and money and that it is applied disproportionately to the poor.  None of these statements require a faith perspective to affirm.
But, this is complex, how do we choose?  Many of us will do all these things faithfully, and still disagree.  And, we might make a decision, and it could turn out to be the wrong one.  For this, I’d like to tell you a story.
The medieval philosopher Buridan had a donkey who, like its master was also a philosopher.  One day, rather than offering the donkey his morning bale of hay, Buridan offered the donkey two equal bales of hay.  The donkey spent the entire day trying to decide which bale of hay to eat.  But the donkey could not decide which bale of hay was the better one.  Day after day, the donkey could not decide- until the donkey, still undecided, starved to death.
We must take the risk of making a choice, even though it might be the wrong choice.  It might be a choice that people get upset with, it might be a choice that fellow faithful people disagree on. We have to make these choices because peoples lives do indeed depend upon them. We are called to engage all our hearts, and all our minds, and all our souls, in this world- because it is Gods.  Let us act like it is so.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Who you talking to, Jesus?

Exodus 20:1-20

Matthew 21:33-46

Jared: Dave- how have you been?  I haven’t seen you at the temple lately.
Dave: Jared, my friend, I’m well.  I’ve been on a special assignment from the council that is keeping me quite busy.
Jared: Special Assignment?
Dave: See that gentleman over there?  Calls himself Jesus of Nazareth and we’ve had our eyes on him for a while.  When we heard that he and his followers were coming to town, word was put out to watch the group carefully.  After he came in and made such a ruckus in the temple the other day, I was told to follow him where ever he goes and to report back his activities.
Jared: What makes this guy so special?
Dave: Honestly, I haven’t a clue.  He mostly sticks around with the riff-raff and periodically tells stories.  
Jared: Some threat.
Dave: I know, right?  Anyway, this was the assignment I drew.  It looks like he is about to launch into another one of his stories.
Jesus: “Listen to another parable. There was a landowner who planted a  vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a  watchtower.  Then he leased it to tenants and went to another country.
Jared: Boy, he certainly isn’t an original, is he?
Dave: Yea, does he expect the land owner to work the land himself?  Of course  he hired people to work the land for him.  A rich important businessman like that would have important business in Rome or other estates to tend to.
Jared: I wonder what vintage of wine they are producing?

Jesus: “When the harvest time had come, he sent his slaves to the tenants to collect his produce. But the tenants seized his slaves and beat one, killed another, and stoned another.”
Jared: Typical.  I’ve been telling the council for a while about these good for nothing peasants.  They are absolutely ungrateful.  They were hired for a job and instead move in like barbarians and try to take everything by force.  They are like locusts: if you let them, they’ll eat you out of house and home.
Dave: I mean, anybody can tend to a field.  Don’t they realize they can be replaced just like that?  All the owner has to do is call in the Roman army and they will be wiped clean.  They simply aren’t like us.  We are the best of the best-  people chosen in infancy to rise up through the religious ranks because we were smarter, born to better families, and chosen by God for leadership.  At least we contribute something important to society.
Jared: Where have the people’s values gone?  You know, it used to be that people respected the temple officials. They wouldn’t slack off or try to cheat their employer.  What these people need is to get to temple more often and learn what true faith is.
Jesus:  “Again he sent other slaves, more than the first; and they treated them in the same way. Finally he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’”
Jared: What, is this guy an idiot?  They kill his servants, so he sends his son?  What does he think is going to happen?
Dave: Uh, duh!  Can’t see a hole in that plan!
Jared: When he first started the story, he sounded like a fine upstanding businessman but now he doesn’t seem quite bright.  If you are going to be that stupid about running a business, about refusing to cut your losses, perhaps he doesn’t deserve the property to begin with.
Jesus:  “But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.” So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him.”
Jared: Boring!  I mean, who couldn’t see this coming.  I mean, I at least thought this guy was going to be a good story teller.  But there isn’t even any suspense here.  Honestly, why is the council worried here?
Jesus-  “Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?”
Jared yells-  “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time.”
(Dave begins to look at Jared a little strangely.  Jared seems a little blood thirsty here)
Dave: Uh, Jared,
Jared (cuts dave off):  At least, that’s what he’ll do if he has any sense about him. These villagers are just wicked, vile creatures.  Everything their master told them, they ignored.  They took the land, stole its possessions, turned from good to evil and sought to kill off, or at least ignore, the very person who gave everything to them.  The world is better off without them.
 Dave: Jared- I think you might be missing
Jared (sarcastically): Shh, he’s finally getting to the point:
Jesus: “Have you never read in the scriptures: ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes’? 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.”
Jared:  That’s right.  God’s wrath is about to poor down!  These people are going to get it.
Dave (almost yelling) Jared, dude, give me a second here.  (grabs Jared’s arm to get his attention.  Continues soberly)  I think he might be talking about us.

Back in August, when I was trying to plan the scriptures for services through the end of this month, I looked at the parable of the vineyard and the wicked tenants and gagged.  I don’t know about you, but there are some scriptures that I love and some that repulse me.  This parable is one that has always made me cringe.  So, my first temptation was to skip it in favor of something else.  But as I tried to move on, my attention kept being drawn back to it.  So, I swallowed a bit, choose it as my focus text and hoped that God would help me to figure out what to do with it when the time comes.
The reason that I reacted so negatively to the scripture is that it is one in a series of texts that have been interpreted throughout much of Christian history to be an anti-Jewish screed.  For example, St. John of Chrysostom, a famous 4th century preacher, said the following about this passage-  
“[God] had not turned away from them, but had sent His very Son; that the God both of the New and of the Old Testament was one and the same; that His death should effect great blessings; that they were to endure extreme punishment for the crucifixion, and their crime; the calling of the Gentiles, the casting out of the Jews.”  
Matthew Henry, a 17th-century Presbyterian preacher who published a widely read biblical commentary- went further-

“This was fulfilled upon the Jews, in that miserable destruction which was brought upon them by the Romans, and was completed about forty years after this; and unparalleled ruin, attended with all the most dismal aggravating circumstances. It will be fulfilled upon all that tread in the steps of their wickedness; hell is everlasting destruction, and it will be the most miserable destruction to them of all others”  
Such interpretations send a chill down my spine.  I know that centuries of Christian thought like these have spilled over into massive persecutions of Jews at the hands of Christians-  Jews were slain almost for sport by crusaders heading for the holy land; entire communities of Jews were wiped out in mass pogroms throughout European history; and of course, most prominently, 6 million Jews were executed during the Holocaust at the hands of one of the most important Christian nations in history-  Germany, the birth place of Lutheranism and many other Christian movements.  In all of these circumstances, the bulk of the Christian church either celebrated the killings or failed to lift a finger or a voice to prevent them.
And so, it was with some dread that I picked this text.  But if we are to be honest about our faith, and if we are to affirm the Bible as our chief source of inspiration and knowledge of God, we cannot merely read that with which we are comfortable while ignoring that with which we are not.
I do not believe God to be a God who desires us to commit violence.  I believe God wept with sorrow and shook with anger when Christians engaged or turned a blind eye to these vile acts.  Thus, I returned to this passage to see how I could correlate it with the unbelievable God of love as revealed through Jesus Christ.
I realized that one of the core problems in interpreting this passage is that we always assume it is about someone else.  We point toward others, be they Jews or some other despised minority and say they are the wicked tenants who are going to be on the receiving end of God’s righteous judgment.  However, I think we miss the truth of the Gospel when we assume that Jesus is always talking about someone else.  Its only when we assume that Jesus is speaking to and about us that we can truly experience its transforming grace.
This is why I asked Dave and Bert to help me to transform the scripture reading into a bit of a drama about two Pharisees who listen to Jesus and only slowly realize that he is talking about them.  I think we need to see ourselves like the two Pharisees- people who assume Jesus is telling stories about others when he is really talking directly to them.
Once I accepted this premise I found something rather amazing in this text.  Let’s recall the drama here-  a landowner goes away and leases the property to others who are called to care for it.  When the landowner checks on the people, he finds that they have rejected his ways and have taken his property, his creation, and used it not for the purpose it was intended but have selfishly seized it to fulfill their own desires and pretended like they were entitled to what they took.  The landowner sends messenger after messenger and the tenants only get worse.
The Lord God created heaven and earth, created humanity in the divine image, and set us forth as stewards of the earth to care and love all of God’s creation.  And yet, the very ones whom God has created, whom God has charged with bearing fruit in the world, have turned against God and have become selfish.  They have consumed and taken for themselves that which God intended as God’s own.  
“Who you talking to Jesus?”  
“Dude, I think he might be talking about us.”
Big problem here-  if we think we are the wicked tenants, and if we think God is coming to massacre the wicked tenants, i.e., us, we better be afraid.  But, my friends, I do not believe God desires us to cower and fear and wait to be struck down.  I think we get that false impression of the story when we miss one little detail.
Jesus asks-  “Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?”
What was the answer?
“He will put those wretches to a miserable death”
Now, think real hard about this next question- who gave that answer?