Qoheleth Chapter Seven Actual

It has been a long break on this blog since I wended through the book of Ecclesiastes. Not counting my April Fool’s Joke, it has been more than eight months since I wrote my entry about Chapter six. But this Blog began with an outpouring about Ecclesiastes, so I feel dedicated to finishing my brief commentary on the book before the end of this year. So bear with me, dear reader, as I once again delve into the words of the Preacher (Qoheleth).

Translation from the Anchor Bible commentary by R.B.Y. Scott

1 “Better is fame than fine ointment” –hence the day of one’s death is more important than the day of one’s birth. 2 “It is better to go to a house of mourning than to go to a feast” –for that is how all everyone comes to an end, and the living take it to heart.
3 “Better is grief than laughter” –it clouds the face but it improves the mind. 4 [So] the thoughts of the wise turn to the house of mourning, but the thoughts of the fools to the place of amusement.
5 “It is better to listen to the rebuke of a wise person than to lend one’s ear to the singing of fools”—for “like the noise of [burning] thorn bushes under a cooking pot is the loud laughter of fools.” This, too, is a hollow thing. 7 But oppression can turn [even] the wise into fools, and it takes away their courage.
8 “Better the end of something than its beginning,” and “Better to be patient than proud.” 9 Do not be easily upset, for vexation is typical of fools. 10 Do not say, “How does it come about that former days were better than these?” It is not the part of wisdom to ask such a question.
11 “It is good to have wisdom as much as an inheritance,” and it is an advantage to people while they live, for 12 “the shelter of wisdom is like the shelter of wealth,” with the added advantage of knowing that wisdom gives life to its possessors.
13 Observe how God orders things; for who can straighten what God has made bent? 14 Be pleased when things go well, but when they go badly, look out! God has arranged that one should correspond to the other, so that mortals may never know what lies ahead of them.” 15 I have seen it all during my transitory existence –the innocent perishing in spite of their innocence, and the wicked who live long in spite of their wickedness. 16 Do not be overscrupulous, or make a fetish of wisdom: why make your life horrible? 17 Do not be very wicked [either], or play the fool: why die before your time? 18 It is best to grasp one thing and not let go the other. The one who fears God will consider both sides. 19 [On the one hand], “Wisdom gives more strength to the wise than a council of ten gives to a city.” 20 Yet there is no one so righteous that they [always] do what is best and never make a mistake. 21 Do not pay too much attention to all the things people say, or you will hear your [own] servant reviling you; 22 for many times, as you know full well, you yourself have reviled others.
23 I sought for wisdom in all this; [I said, I want to be wise], but it was beyond me. 24 What it was, proved remote, and so very deep that no one could find it. 25 So I turned my attention to study and explore and seek for wisdom and meaning on the one hand, and to identify wickedness, stupidity, folly and madness on the other. 26 More bitter to me than death was my experience with woman, whose thoughts are traps and snares and whose hands are chains; by God’s favor one may escape her, but whomever he disapproves will be caught by her. 27 See, this is what I have found, [Says Qoheleth], adding one thing to another to reach a conclusion, 28 after searching long without finding anything –one man in a thousand I found, but not one woman in all these did I find. 29 This only, mark you, I discovered, that God had made humans upright, and they have willfully turned to many reckonings of their own.

My Harper Collin’s Study Bible titles this chapter: “A Disillusioned View of Life.” But I hear nothing but encouragement, and hope for life. I would rather title it as “A Call To Persistence When Faced With Life.”

To be fair, the first part of chapter seven seems to contradict everything that Qoheleth has said so far. If there is nothing better for one to do in life than “eat drink and be merry.” How can Qoheleth turn around and say here “It is better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting” and “sorrow is better than laughter” (NRSV, verses 2&3)? What are we to make of such statements?

One way to parse this out, is that it could be a comparative argument and not a statement of absolute truth. To say “it is better to go into the house of mourning than the house of feasting” does not mean that feasting has no value. It is rather a comparative statement saying that there is a lot of value to be had in the house of mourning. Just as if I were to say “Better to keep away from that peanut butter than stick your finger in it” it does not mean that sticking your finger in that peanut butter is always objectively bad. There are times when sticking your finger in peanut butter is perfectly acceptable, but in this instance I am making a comparative argument that points to some value about the peanut butter. (For one, that peanut butter is mine, and there is value in my friendship if you do not eat it.) In the same way, it is likely not Qoheleth’s point here that given the choice, we should never chose to go into the house of feasting. But instead, it points out that there is value to be found in the house of mourning.

When we use this formula “better___ than___,” today, we often immediately want to dismiss the second thing in the comparative. This is because we live in a culture that values quantity over quality. Our culture says “more is always better” so why would you ever pick the second option? If something is less than something else, we do not want any part of it. So when we read these comparative arguments in Qoheleth, we want to dismiss the house of feasting. But that kind of thinking is foreign to Qoheleth, and it is not her/his intention behind introducing a comparative formula. For Qoheleth, this is simply a good way to talk about where quality resides (there is lots of it in mourning). It is not a way to dismiss one thing completely over another. Any prolonged reading of Qoheleth teaches us that quantity is not where it is at. Because any amassing of number will turn out to be vanity. Therefore our culture sets us up for error when we look at these comparatives as a quantity judgment; we hear that we should drop the feasting for the sake of the mourning. So it is good that chapter seven gives us its own central interpretive tool: “It is good that you should take hold of one, without letting go of the other; for the one who fears god shall succeed with both.” (NRSV Verse 18). Do not let go of the feasting for the sake of mourning. “For the one who fears god shall succeed with both!”

Luther’s gloss is that this passage warns us against extremes- its contradictions show us a lesson in moderation. We have heard on the one hand how we should enjoy the things that are present in life, that all things are a gift from God, so we should take joy when joy is given to us. But the other extreme then, is making a test of pleasure and keeping too light. “If we teach that nothing but faith alone justifies, then wicked people neglect all works. On the other hand, if we teach that faith must be attested by works, they immediately attribute justification to these . . . It is difficult to remain on the royal road, as, for example, here: neither sadness alone nor happiness alone , but the middle between them is what one is to keep” (LW 15, 111).

This reading makes sense of verses 13-22. They clarify what the middle road looks like- that God is in charge and we should look to God when confronted with the many opposite extremes of life. We should be neither foolish nor too wise, neither too wicked nor too righteous. But take the middle road with God. Instead of a disillusioned view of life, therefore, we get a call to persistence. We can take comfort in the idea that God is in control. We should not give up hope when faced with despair. God can work through sorrow just as much as god can work through joy. With God, we can persist after the worth in life, which can be found just as much in sorrow as in feasting. There is value in the ends of things, and in seeing things through to their logical conclusion: for there the living will find something to lay in their hearts (Verse 2).

Finally, I must confront the unfortunate discussion in verses 26-29. To modern ears this just sounds misogynist. It is a passage that has been abused and trotted out as a polemic against women. Even Luther’s gloss falls wayward of any modern sensibility that begs for gender equality. A lot of this passage is really an artifact of the time, and not something that can directly speak to us today. It is not likely however, that Qoheleth truly meant it as an attack against women. But, as Harper Collins puts it: “more likely it echoes Proverbs’ warning against the seductiveness of Folly and adultery, in which males [in Qoheleth’s culture] are responsible for sexual restraint toward women other than their wives.” So we can read this as more an argument for appreciating the love that you already have, than an argument against women. Harper Collins continues to say that the sense of this discussion in the context is unclear, but “Perhaps it is a hyperbolic idiom using the image of rarity to express the great value of a good man and woman.” I think this interpretation is maybe a bit of a stretch, and it provides slim comfort. But sometimes artifacts of earlier cultures like this one, cannot truly be rescued for modern ears.

We should always hold in mind that the point and purpose of Ecclesiastes “is to instruct us, so that with thanksgiving we may use the things that are present and the creatures of God that are generously given to us and conferred upon us by the blessing of God (LW15, 10). If this is truly a polemic against women, it does not do anything to advance that central argument Luther helps us to identify. For women are just as much a part of God’s creation as Men are, and both should equally be enjoyed as they are present. If I am right and these verses do not push the purpose of the book one way or the other, we can comfortably leave them behind as an artifact that does not need much of our attention. If they do add to the argument, then it must be something like Harper Collin’s gloss that a good mate is a rare find indeed, and so we should doubly enjoy a good partner when God gives one to us. It is best not to dwell on the end of chapter seven too long, or we will find ourselves becoming much too anxious about this old and unfortunate single illustration in an otherwise comforting and helpful book. Let us not let go of the one for the sake of the other.

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Sermon on The Parable of the Ten Bridesmaids.

Grace be unto you from God our Father and our Lord and savior Jesus Christ, Amen.
Sometimes I wish Jesus would just keep his mouth shut. I’m going along just fine, I’m fighting on his side as he squabbles with the chief priests and elders in the temple, and then he drops something like this parable today. Really Jesus? You had to go there? I bet you just said that to make it difficult for 21st century vicars to preach. You purposely made up that parable to make sleepless nights for people like me, didn’t you? It is as if he said: “Let’s watch the preachers squirm and wiggle about this one on Sunday.”
In all seriousness, the parable of the ten bridesmaids is a difficult text. Its imagery is obscure and it does not easily translate into modern day understanding. It is written to a very specific audience with concerns that we no longer share. And on top of it all, it simply seems unfair! Why wouldn’t the wise bridesmaids share? Is this really what the kingdom of heaven will be like? Didn’t we hear the last couple of weeks about abundance, and sharing, and living in community with one another?
It seems to me, if this is the kingdom of heaven, someone would have shared their oil! Furthermore, why don’t the foolish bridesmaids get another chance to get into the party? Isn’t God all about second chances, third chances, and seventy times seven forgiveness? What makes the wise ones so great that they get to go to the party? If the moral of the story is to keep awake, then what help is the case that ALL of the bridesmaids fell asleep? It seems unfair that something as arbitrary as remembering extra oil should decide if you get into the party. At first glance, this is nothing like the kingdom I want to hear about. I’ve got plenty enough selfishness and rejection in the human kingdom. How could the Kingdom of Heaven one day be like this? Really Jesus?
I mean, how many of you here have ever been late? How many have forgotten things, or shown up somewhere unprepared? Many of us have had the nightmare where we show up to class having no idea that there was supposed be an exam that day. We all know the terror of being unprepared. To be sure, there are some times when we are the wise ones who packed more than we needed, but there are just as many times that we are the fools who bring simply what we could grab at the time. That is why this parable makes me squirm. Because it is not fair to foolish bridesmaids like me. Good thing you guys are all wise bridesmaids, right? You always come prepared.
But now, all of us have fallen into the trap that this parable has set. We’re caught up in the lamps and whether or not WE are prepared enough. As soon as we start asking if we are a foolish bridesmaids or  wise ones, we have missed the point. You see, even if we think we are in the wise bridesmaids’ camp, we have to pause to worry that we won’t have what it takes. And that’s the heart of it: This very worry that the parable makes us to face is the reason Jesus did not keep his mouth shut. The secret is, ALL the bridesmaids are unworthy of God’s kingdom. All of them fall asleep, not a one of them keeps awake, The foolish ones aren’t prepared, and the wise ones do not share what they had prepared, and worse: all of them are focused on their lamps and if they have enough.
You see, the real difference is not that the wise bridesmaids were more prepared than the foolish ones. If that were the case, maybe they would not ALL have fallen asleep. The wise ones might have taken a nap the day before. If they were truly more prepared, they might have brought enough oil for themselves and to spare so they can share with the foolish bridesmaids. If it was preparation that mattered, you would think that one of them would share so that others around them could also be ready. But preparation is the trap of the parable, not the answer.
No, the real difference is that the wise bridesmaids had a moment where they thought about the bridegroom. The thought about the bridegroom is what gives them the wisdom to bring extra oil in case he is delayed. Let me say again: The difference is not what the wise ones did, but what happened to them: they had a thought about the bridegroom. Think of the bridegroom! There is a wedding feast coming! There is Christ, soon to be here in our midst, and here, we are- all of us- worried about how much oil is in our lamps!
The wise ones worried about it just as much as the foolish ones. That is why they did not share, they were worried because they wanted to make sure they had enough for themselves. The only real fault of the foolish bridesmaids is that they never once looked up from their lamps to see the bridegroom coming! They never once thought of why they were there- to celebrate at a wedding feast! That is why the bridegroom can say to them when they finally get to the door: “Truly, I do not know you.” And when we hear those words, all of us should hang our heads in shame. Because, in that moment, all of us fail- both the wise and the fool.
We cannot get to the feast on our own, and our lamps will never make us worthy. It is the bridegroom that makes us worthy of a party. It is the bridegroom that gets us there. It is the bridegroom that is important, not the lamps, not the oil! The bridegroom, Christ, coming to bring us to the feast.
Imagine how different the story would go if we focused on the bridegroom, instead of how much oil was in the lamps! Why, for one, we might have stayed awake when we went out to wait. Christ is coming! Christ is coming! How can you go to sleep? Then, later when the lamps are burning low, the wise might say to the foolish “there is no time! The bridegroom is coming, here stand with me, and we will hold our lamps together.” Or the foolish might say to the wise: “My lamp has run out! May I walk with you to the party?” Instead, we, all of us,wise and fool alike, make it about the lamps. We make it a competition about who has prepared more. And all of us fall asleep. All of us lose sight of what really matters.
What matters, is the reason we are to keep awake: Christ is coming! The kingdom of God is coming! The good news of this parable is, we are waiting for Christ! We should hear the gospel ring triumphantly in our hearts when Christ tells us to “keep awake for you know neither the day nor the hour!” Because it means that it is not up to us who gets into the kingdom nor when it comes. It means it doesn’t matter how much oil we will need. It is rather, Christ that matters. For in Christ is life, just as in the bridegroom there is the wedding party.
That is why this parable is so harsh and unfair, because all of us feel its burn. We are incapable of relying on Christ. Not a one of us can do it. Wise, foolish, anyone. No matter how good our lamps are, or even if we have electric ones nowadays with everlasting batteries. We cannot do ourselves any good. And we cannot help ourselves but to look over to see whose lights are shining, and whose are dim. We rely on our lamps and ourselves, and so we fall asleep having spent all our energy on worrying.
And so we have nothing left. Nothing left that we can do, but rely on Christ. It is Christ that comes and takes us to the wedding banquet, even though we fell asleep and did not share our oil. Christ comes even though we were rushed and came unprepared without enough oil. So, brothers and sisters, comfort one another with these words: Christ is coming for you! Christ brings us to the feast, and that makes all of the difference.
Do not get wrapped up in who brought how much oil, or if you are wise or foolish. All of this is what this parable warns us against. What really matters is the feast and the Bridegroom that are coming, and isn’t that exciting news? Keep awake therefore, stay alive in Christ, and remember the bridegroom. For Christ is on the way, broken for you in bread and wine.

-Autumn Without Family-

He sat, or rather, the
bench held him
while he curled like paint flakes
and watched for the bus.
Breath percolated out of his nose

as if unsure.
Short motes, and long ice trails.
He briefly adjusted his woolmitts from
to crossed with elbows.

But the real cold was in the set
of his face.  That

sat stronger than the rest
of him, or even the bench.
Dignity freshly siphoned

from his shoulders.
His grey pant-legs quaked
above his shoes.
Shivering shins
tapping out an argument
between being old and being free.

Where he was going was
not home. And where he left
was just as empty.
The bus curchunked, and
swung its grimeglass doors.
There was a grateful air
in the way it swallowed him.

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Thoughts About Stewardship-Vicar’s Corner

Newsletter article on Stewardship written to my internship congregation Trinity Lutheran Church wherein I make a poop joke.

In this time of gathering harvest, families, and thoughts– it is good to take a moment and think about what lies at the heart and other end of gathering: giving. What do I mean by “what lies at heart and other end”? I mean that what we often take to be the opposite or other-end of a thing (gathering in, versus giving out) can often also be found deep at the very heart of that thing itself. Luther made this discovery in distinguishing between Law and Gospel, that is, the word that puts to death and the word that brings to new life. Sometimes at the very bottom of the law is written the gospel. The very thing that puts us to death can also be a source of great life.

I talked to a few of you about this very thing in our question driven pastor’s bible study. The topic was prayer, and we discovered that for Luther, prayer is all about the law given in the second commandment. This law says sternly that we are not to take the name of our Lord God in vain. This puts us to death every time we curse or swear or call upon God for our own selfish desires. But for Luther, written at the very bottom of this law is also a life-giving Gospel letter: that we should use God’s name to call upon in our every need. In short, the Gospel we find at the bottom of the second commandment, is the gift of prayer! Praying is not our fault! It is not about our worthiness, or if we have the right words, or even about getting in right with God. But instead, the second commandment teaches that it is something God wants to hear from us, no matter what. It is a place that God promises to meet us in our deepest needs, no matter who we are. God promises to listen to and hear our prayers because that is what it means for us to use God’s name well. At the very heart and other end of not taking the lord’s name in vain, is prayer. So too, I want to say that at the very heart and other end of gathering, there is giving.

Why do we gather things? We hope to share in the abundance of life. Yet, gathering without giving defeats this abundant life. It kills us more than it makes us alive. We probably know too well the stories of misers, and how they cut themselves off from the world in their hoarding. There is something fundamentally wrong with someone who gathers in and stops at just that. So much so that it bothers us, and we call it greed. Gathering without giving at its heart is a sure sign of death. It is a sign that we are cut off from what makes us human to those around us. The point is, only in giving from what we gathered do we share in the abundant life that gathering hopes to achieve. Therefore, to answer why we gather things we must also ask why we give things.

Why do we give? It is the very thing what makes us human. Giving is so fundamental to our being, it is so basic that we cannot live without it. That is why the misers in the stories so easily appear as dead shells of humanity walking. Because they are! It is as fundamental as a mother’s milk given to a baby. From the moment we are born, we cannot survive on our own. No baby can carry on living if we do not give to it milk, love, and all manner of care. So too can no Mother live without giving those things. No one can live without giving. Even our breath gathers in so that it can also breathe out. Even our food gathered in does not stay long. Try holding that in. But how much more alive does it make us when we give!

So Trinity, there is all the stewardship campaign you should ever need: check your pulse. Are you living? Are you breathing? Then that is why you should give. Because giving is what makes us alive to one another. Giving is what makes us human and not dead empty shells. Just as giving to a baby shares life with the baby, so giving to the Church shares life with the Church. Just as a mother cannot live with herself if she withholds life from her child, so too does giving to others keep you alive. Giving is at the heart and other end of why we gather; so that life may be abundant and we might be to one another as God has been to us. Amen.

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Render Unto Caesar- Sermon.

Grace be unto you from God our Father, and our Lord and savior Jesus Christ, Amen.
To say there is very little the Pharisees have in Common with the Herodians, is an understatement. It would be like if Sarah Palin didn’t like what Jesus was saying, so she went and got together with her good chum Hillary Clinton and approached him. Their main platforms are exactly opposite one another. The Pharisees on one side, don’t like Rome and its constant meddling in their affairs. Meanwhile, the Herodians are committed to keeping Rome in power through the puppet King Herod. About the only thing they have in common is that they don’t like Jesus.  So I hope you can feel the tension in the room when they ask their question: “Tell us, is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?”
The trap is this: If Jesus answers “yes” then he is in trouble with the Pharisees and the crowds who do not like Rome and think the tax is unfair. If Jesus answers “no” then he is in trouble with the Herodians and the Roman government itself. He can be charged with treason. But Jesus does not take the bait. He answers them, “Show me the coin used for the tax.” And then they bring him a denarius, which is a telling feat, because they have the money to spare for the question, and Jesus does not. Jesus looks down at the coin and says to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” 21 They answered, “The emperor’s.” Then he said to them, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” 22 When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.
Are WE amazed though? I think we have heard the words “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and render unto God what is God’s” too many times. It is used to support so many different things, that there is an audible eye roll every time someone says it again. It is hard to hear these words in a fresh way. So, let’s talk about the heart of the matter. And maybe we will find out why we should be amazed at these words.
Now, I’ve laid my eyes on an American Dollar once or twice, and I’ve seen it enough to know that it doesn’t have a picture of a live, active ruler on it. In Jesus time there was a convenient picture of Caesar there to make his point. Pictures of dead presidents aside, we can still ask Jesus’ question: whose seal and inscription are on our dollar? Who does it say it belongs to? Well, I suppose it is the United States Government and her Treasury. Which is pretty much our version of Caesar. According to the bill, the US Federal Reserve owns the dollar. Yet I’m still tempted to say that when I have a dollar, it’s mine. I earned it after all. What Jesus points out, is that the dollar does not have MY name on it. It has the name of my government. My Caesar still owns this dollar even if I am the one holding it.
Now there’s something particularly interesting about our money, which didn’t hold true in Jesus’ time: every US dollar and coin bears the phrase “In God We Trust.” Isn’t that a precious little chestnut: In God We Trust. What would this country look like if that were actually true? I mean, how many of you are thinking about trust in God when you spend your money? I know that’s not what I’m thinking. When I hand over my money: I’m thinking, now I can get me some tasty cheese sandwiches. Or I’m thinking, “Ouch, there goes yet another bill I could barely pay.” But trust in God? Our own Supreme Court has said that the words “In God We Trust” on our money has no real religious meaning. No real meaning! Can you believe it? This is their very argument for why we can keep the phrase on our bills and coins without violating a separation of church and state. And you know what? They are right, you can tell it has no real meaning, or we would not look at money as fearfully as we do. If we actually trusted in God, wouldn’t we approach money in a completely different way? Why are we so guarded about calling it our own when we have it?
We are now ready to be as amazed as the Pharisees and Herodians were when they hear these words: Render unto Caesar what belongs to Caesar, Render unto God what Belongs to God. This is no mere pithy phrase establishing a separation of church and state… it is much more than Jesus telling us to pay our taxes, and give God’s stuff to God. When Jesus says this, one commentator imagines he can see him casting the denarius aside in disgust! As it clatters on the ground, you can hear that this is like a gauntlet being thrown down along with that coin. The gauntlet implies that we should go and give ALL our money to the government, not just the tax. Jesus throws away one coin, and symbolically tosses all the rest back to Caesar as well.
His argument is that regardless of the tax, the money wasn’t ours to complain about to begin with. Our money says it belongs to Caesar right on the front. Furthermore, this money is idolatrous, we make it a God– right down to the graven image we put upon it. So, he says, give ALL of this repulsive money back to Caesar whose seal is upon it. He tells them: you are fixated on this money as if you own it. But more accurately, it owns you: money is a God that rules over you. So much so that you are worried about surrendering some portion of it for a tax! Remember again that Jesus did not have the money to answer the question. He is not ruled by money. But the Pharisees and Herodians readily had a denarius to give him. Can you see how ruled by money they are? How much are we ruled by money?
So he says, give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and forget this money. This is all idolatry, and you should have nothing to do with it. Finally, give to God what belongs to God: namely, give the same authority and power you are giving to this money to God. God should have sovereignty, God should have this power, not money. God should have our respect, and our fear, for in God we also find Grace and love. Money does not give us love nor grace. Only power and fear. So trust not in money, but trust in God!
And that’s the rub that makes these words so amazing: trusting in God is hard! It is not something that we can do on our own. Ack! I cannot even do it when it is printed on my money. I mean, there it is, the very first commandment: you shall have no other Gods. But by the time I get awake and rolling in the morning I have already made time, coffee, and doughnuts my Gods. I must say that I daily trust in God just about as much as I trust in the weather man. And I’m pretty sure the weather service lies to me more than anyone I know.
One thing is clear, we’re going to need a lot of help. As Luther says in his Small Catechism: “I believe that by my own understanding or strength I cannot trust in Jesus Christ.” he says I cannot do it! “I can’t trust in my Lord, or come to him, but instead the Holy Spirit has called me through the gospel, enlightened me with her gifts, made me holy and kept me in the true faith, just as she calls, gathers, enlightens and makes holy the whole Christian Church.” We cannot trust or believe in God by ourselves, but the good news is, God has sent God’s Holy Spirit, and God does the work of faith for us in Christ. Saint Paul says in First Thessalonians “For we know, brothers and sisters beloved by God, that God has chosen you, 5 because our message of the gospel came to you not in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction”
It would be as if, in our Baptism, God says “Show me this person. Whose seal is upon them? And whose inscription is marked upon their hearts?” Why, this child is sealed with the cross of Christ! This child belongs to God, and has God’s name written in their every breath. Here, in the water of the font and through the hearing of God’s word, we are truly rendered unto God. GOD gives us faith where we have only fear and money. All that we are belongs to God, and through Christ and the Holy Spirit, we are made new. Here at the font we are made to trust. We are made a people of faith. So give to God what belong’s to God! (The secret is, God had you all along!)
God works faith in us here. We need a lot of help, for sure. But God has already abundantly supplied that help. God has already claimed each and every one of us, and made us God’s own. As we learned last week from Pastor Bill: [God Loves us!] And so through God’s love, money no longer rules us. With God as our ruler, we become free to use our money as a blessing to others. So maybe we should rewrite the slogan on our money to say: In God we gain Trust. Because in God, we gain one another. Because God’s Trust in us, gives us trust to share! And that brings new worth to every penny and every neighbor.

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Sermon for the 16th Sunday after Pentecost

This is my first sermon that I gave as Vicar at Trinity Lutheran Church. The text is Matthew 21:23-32. Not the easiest text for a first sermon, but I’ll let you be the judge of how I did.

Grace and peace be unto you from God our father, and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen.

Jesus has done it again! He got into a spat with the chief priests and elders while teaching in the temple. It seems like just about every other week Jesus gets into one of these battles of wits. This time, the chief priests come to Jesus asking a me-me question. Now, you all know what a me-me question is, you just didn’t call it that until I invented the word for it just now. It’s a question that is completely focused in on yourself. No matter what the words of the question, no matter what it seems to ask on the surface, its only real concern is me, me, me, me, me! That’s why I call it a me-me question. You’ve heard these me-me questions: Are we there yet? Do I have to? or Are you gonna eat that? But there are also other more difficult me-me questions like: What’s the point? Am I really worth anything? and How am I going to get through this?

There is one thing all me-me questions have in common: they come from a place of fear and of doubt. Me-me questions are what we ask when we are curved in on ourselves, when we look into the depths of our own abilities and we become afraid that we will not be able to measure up. We want to control the outcome, we want to be there already, we want to amount to something.

And so, the chief priests ask their me-me question, because they are afraid and focused on themselves. They want to control Jesus, to find someone who they can blame so that they can have the power to get rid of him. They ask Jesus, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” The question is a self-serving question. A trap, to see what the chief priests can do about Jesus, who has made them uncomfortable.

Jesus answers this me-me question by calling it out as just that: a self-serving question. He turns the trap the chief priests tried to set for him on its head, and reveals them for the people trapped within themselves that they are. He says, if you can answer my question first, I will tell you the answer to yours. “Did the baptism of John come from Heaven, or was it of human origin?” Jesus question is an outward focused question, the opposite of a me-me question. It points the chief priests and elders away from themselves and what they are trying to control. Jesus points instead toward John the Baptist, and God’s work through him.

Then listen to how inward focused their answers remain! The chief priests and elders redouble in fear. “If we say it is from heaven, then we will look like hypocrites.” If we say it is human, we fear we will lose our popularity because the crowd looks at John the Baptist as a prophet. Jesus makes us hear them going: “me-me-me-me-me!” underneath all their questioning. And so the chief priests and elders answer out of fear, saying that “we do not know where John’s baptism comes from.”

You see, Jesus has already won, the battle of wits before the chief priests even opened their mouths.
Jesus has already won because he points away from himself to God and God’s work. While the chief priests and elders can only point at themselves.

What do you think? Jesus then tells us a parable: there were two children sitting in front of the television. Mom poked her head in and asked the eldest if she would go unload the dishwasher. She complained and said “Mom, my favourite show is about to come on, and I am tired. I just got home from soccer practice. I’m not unloading the dishwasher right now.” But afterwards, she regretted it and went to unload the dishwasher. Mom went and asked the second child if he would unload the dishwasher, and he said “Okay Mom, I guess I can do it” but then he got to a really interesting part of the video game (level 21!) he was playing and never went. Then, Jesus asks the chief priests and elders, which of the two children did the will of their mother? The answer is of course, the first. The one who repented, and did the work of unloading the dishwasher. I think we can all agree that it is never any good to say you are going to do something, and then not do it.

But here again, we can become trapped. Because it is at this point, in reading today’s gospel, that we all want to pick teams. “Oh, I am SO GLAD I am the good kid that actually unloads the dishwasher.” “At least I’M not like those chief priests and elders.” I’m on the good team, I will repent and do God’s work!” “Ugh, I am disgusted by those people who say they are going to unload the dishwasher and then don’t do it.” I’m on the good team! I’m on the good team!

Notice then, when Jesus picks for us the next people on these teams…For the bad team, I pick chief priests and elders! Boo them! We say, I’m glad they went on that team. And now, says Jesus, For the good team, I pick Tax collectors and prostitutes. Wait, WHAT? Did I hear you Jesus? Tax collectors and prostitutes? I thought this was the good team! Why are THEY here? I didn’t sign up for tax collectors and prostitutes, this is a FAMILY church Jesus. Don’t you realize that kids are listening to this sermon?

And then, we too are caught in the same way the chief priests and elders are. All of those questions we start asking in response to who’s on our team, are me-me questions. Jesus is pointing us away from ourselves toward the boundaries of society. Toward the other, and the outcast. And we get uncomfortable, and we get me-me questions.

Here is the good news: It is truly not about whether you have unloaded the dishwasher or not. It is not about whether you are on the “good” team with the tax collectors and prostitutes, or the “bad” team with the chief priests and elder. It is not even so much about who is first into the kingdom of God, and who is last. No, what this parable teaches us, is that it is the repentance that really matters. The reason we want to root for the tax collectors and prostitutes, is because they have repented. They heard God’s news through John the Baptist, and they turned their heads. The reason we want to be on the unloading the dishwasher team, is because the girl repented and did her mother’s will. And that is all the worth that the parable shows us: it is repentance that counts.

Now, repentance is not a thing you can do, like for instance unloading the dishwasher. I have to be careful when I talk about repentance, because I do not mean it in the way a lot of people hear the word. The most common idea is that repenting should be feeling really really bad about yourself because you did not unload the dishwasher. It is feeling extremely sorry for your sins, and promising to do better. But that is the opposite of what I mean, and this parable means, when I talk about repentance. Because, what does that kind of repentance do to you? It turns your head down, and inward. Right? That kind of repentance makes you go like this: It makes you focus on yourself and how small you are. That kind of repentance turns all our questions into the worst kind of me-me questions. “why wasn’t I good enough?” “How can I be better?” “How am I not myself?”

No, the whole reason we want to be on the Tax collector’s and prostitute’s team is that they have been curved out! Why would we want repentance to be so curved in?

This parable teaches us to re-frame how we look at repentance. It turns our me-me questions into grace-filled other-filled questions. “How are you doing?” “Do you have enough?” “Peace be with you, will you come over to share supper with me? This kind of repentance is something positive! But moreover, this kind of repentance is passive. It is God working on us, curving us back away from ourselves and out into the world. When the girl repents, it is not because of what she thought (she was tired!) But it was because of what her Mom thought. In this way, repentance is not a thing that YOU do, but more a thing done to you.

I like to say repentance is like when someone with ADD walks by something shiny. The shiny thing turns their head. Oh! Look at that! And it’s a HUGE difference! Repentance like this: (navel gazing) vs. repentance like this: (oh! Look!)

So too, when you repent, it is not something you can do by looking in on yourself. Repenting is when the shiny grace of God turns you away from the place you were walking, and points you in a new direction. Look over here! See the peace and love of God! It is shiny, and now you too can be shiny for others. Mom turns you away from the television and toward the dishwasher so that you too can eat from clean plats. God turns us away from ourselves and toward one another so that we too can live in community. God turns us away from death and toward life! So turn then, and live!

That’s the kind of repentance we celebrate every time we share communion and we say this is Christ’s body broken FOR YOU, and this is Christ’s blood shed FOR YOU. And by that we mean you are not alone. Here, in the last place you would expect to look, on the team with the tax collectors, prostitutes, and yes, EVEN YOU. There is God working to turn our heads toward grace. Christ is here for you. We are all here for you at Trinity. It doesn’t matter what team you are on, or if you did your Mother’s will and unloaded the dishwasher. Here, in the bread and wine we are set free to share grace with one another. Now you are free to ask grace questions “how can I feed my neighbor as I have been fed?” “How can I be a moment of grace in someone’s life, as this bread and wine are a moment of Grace for me?”

Christ died to set us free from ourselves. To give us peace, and comfort in one another. And, in that way, Christ points us ever outward, away from our me-me questions, toward grace and toward the boundaries. Toward the outcast, the tax collectors and the prostitutes. For there, in the place you would last think to look, that is where God’s work of repentance, grace and mercy has already begun.

-Repeat Minus the Lather-

As if it were bricklaying or
an onion we could dice and
caramelize with olive oil

we imagine it facebook-eventable
but peace is a memory problem.
It fades. We repeat it to ourselves,
we repeat it charbroiled.

Already it slipped my mind
how my stomach goes
hydroelectric at the top of a swing
chainrust squeezed into my palms
rubber seat arching.
Zoom in on sky, ground

pans out.
And I have to hear peace
again when later I’m impaling
at my keyboard. That cursor
blinks, like a crow molting.
Blankness in its feathers.

I go off to smite against a wall.
Come back incorporeal,
and peace is whispering
something slow and tree sap
and I miss it. Preoccupied by
the branches and rootwars

the concrete on the curb
cracking upward.
Peace, even carved lavishly in
constipated rage
on a bathroom wall
is forgettable.