Wake Up!

By the Rev. Darren Miner

Bible Readings

Today is the first Sunday of Advent, and the church begins another liturgical year. This season has two distinct foci: the first coming, or advent, of our Lord some 2000 years ago and the second coming, or advent, when Christ will come again in glory to judge the world.

In normal times, the church observes the season with the use of violet vestments and paraments. And each Sunday of Advent is marked with the lighting of a new candle on the Advent wreath. But this is not a normal time, so we don’t have these visual cues. Even so, there are changes to the liturgy that mark the change of season. For example, we now begin Morning Prayer with a Confession of Sin, and the canticles between the readings have changed to match the change of the season.

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The first reading today from Isaiah speaks of the Day of the Lord. The prophet longs for a day of final judgment when God will act definitively against the nations that threaten Israel. And he laments that God has seemingly abandoned his people because of their sinfulness and lack of faith. On behalf of his people, Isaiah asks God to overlook the people’s sins and to continue to shape and mold them into a priestly people.

In the second reading, St. Paul reminds us that God is with us and that he has given us many spiritual gifts through Jesus Christ. Paul assures us that God will continue to abide with us, even to the very end, for God is faithful. We may not always be faithful, but God always is! And with God’s own help, should we choose to accept it, we will be made ready to stand before the throne of God and receive judgment at his hand.

Finally, we come to the Gospel reading from Mark. It is an excerpt from chapter 13, often called “the Little Apocalypse,” because it resembles the greater apocalypse of the Book of Revelation. And like all apocalyptic literature, it deals with what will happen at the end of time, using symbolism that is both difficult and disturbing.

In this excerpt, Jesus warns us that on the Last Day his chosen ones, the Elect of God, will be gathered up by angels for salvation. Precisely when this Day of Judgment will occur even Jesus doesn’t know. And so he urgently counsels his followers to keep awake and to be spiritually prepared at all times. Think of this scripture as something akin to those blaring alerts from the Emergency Alert System you get from time to time on your TV.

For a couple of centuries, Christians managed to maintain that sense of urgency, that expectation that the Last Day was at hand. But to be quite honest, it’s been 2000 years since the emergency broadcast was first aired, and we’ve stopped paying close attention! But even if the Second Coming of Christ does not occur in our lifetimes, the fact is that all of us will eventually face our Maker and be judged. And we should live each day as if it were out last. If we truly thought we had only this one day to set things right with God and our neighbor—what might we do differently? I suspect we might start doing what we should have been doing all along!

Now, if you’ve been paying attention in church, you already know what God expects of us. For the Scriptures have given us plenty of guidance. We have the Beatitudes from the Sermon on the Mount: to be poor in spirit, to hunger and thirst for righteousness, to be pure in heart, to be peacemakers…. We have Jesus’ advice to keep the three traditional Jewish acts of piety: to pray, to fast, and to give alms. We have the hidden commandment in the Lord’s Prayer: to forgive others their trespasses. We have the continuing guidance of the Ten Commandments. And finally, we have the Summary of the Law: to love God and to love our neighbor.

Admittedly, it takes real effort to maintain righteousness. And it takes attentiveness. It’s so easy to fall asleep spiritually. Going to church every week can get to be a chore (even phoning in can be a bother), so our attendance starts to drop off. The cost of living keeps going up and life in a pandemic can be precarious, so maybe we stop giving to charity. Forgiveness is such hard work, so maybe we just hold on to that little grudge. Then there’s the task of daily prayer—it can be so tedious and time-consuming—minutes out of our life that we will never get back!—so we stop talking to God. And little by little, we drift asleep.

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Well, “wake up, and smell the coffee”! Now is the time to prepare for judgment. Now is the time to make things right. Now is the time to put the house in order, “for you do not know when the master of the house will come.”

Amen.

© 2020 by Darren Miner. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

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A Christmas Carol – Incarnation Radio Hour

Please join us for our 6th edition of the Incarnation Radio Hour featuring an adaptation of Charles Dickens’ ‘A Christmas Carol.’

Date & Time: Wednesday December 9, 4 p.m. PST

Free to attend.

For zoom call details send an e-mail to comebefed@aol.com

Featuring:

  • Jere Torkelsen as Mr. Scrooge
  • Margaret Genovese as Ghosts of Christmas Past and Present
  • Sally Munro as the Narrator

A holiday favorite, A Christmas Carol, is a short novella by Charles Dickens, originally published in 1843. Through a series of spectral visions, the miserly Ebenezer Scrooge is allowed to review his life and to change its outcome. The Ghost of Christmas Past reveals vignettes of Scrooge’s early life as a schoolboy, an apprentice, and a young man in love. The Ghost of Christmas Present reveals to Scrooge that joy has little to do with wealth; together they visit the homes of Bob Cratchit, Scrooge’s much-abused clerk, and of his generous nephew Fred, who has married for love. Finally the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come allows Scrooge a vision of what his end will be like if he continues on his present course—he will die despised and unmourned. After witnessing these scenes, Scrooge is a changed man. He immediately sets about mending his ways, becoming generous and thoughtful and thereby finding redemption and joy.  (from https://www.britannica.com/topic/A-Christmas-Carol-novel)

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Be Ready at All Times

Gospel Reading

By the Rev. Darren Miner

Jesus’ story about a wedding that goes awry strikes a chord with me. I officiated at my nephew’s wedding some nine years ago. And a few minutes before the wedding was supposed to start, I asked the best man if he had the rings. The answer was no. Luckily, the bride was delayed. So, there was time to retrieve the rings, and the story had a happy ending. But Jesus’ allegorical parable about the Kingdom of Heaven deals with a wedding that doesn’t have quite so happy an ending.

Ten maidens from the groom’s household are waiting for him to return to the family abode with his new bride. Their job is to meet the wedding party on the road and to escort the couple to the wedding hall carrying torches (more precisely, oil lamps attached to poles).

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The groom is unexpectedly delayed. Now, it turns out that five of these bridesmaids had brought no oil with them, and five had. After a long while, everyone, both the wise and the foolish, falls asleep. When the groom finally arrives hours late, the five foolish bridesmaids suddenly realize that they are missing one essential item, olive oil to keep the torches burning during the long procession.

When asked, the wise bridesmaids refuse to share. This seems rather selfish, at first glance, but the explanation is that there is not enough to last ten people for the entire procession. If they did share, all the torches would go out in the middle of the procession, and the procession would be stranded in the dark.

So, the foolish bridesmaids are sent off to the shops at midnight to buy olive oil. It would seem unlikely that a shop would be open at that hour. But the story implies that eventually they were successful.

When they get to the wedding hall, the procession is over; the wedding ceremony is over; the doors have been locked; and the party has started. Now, the locking of the doors is an anomaly. At a typical Jewish wedding in those days, the doors would normally be kept open, and guests would come and go all night long.

When the foolish bridesmaids find the door unexpectedly locked, they call out, asking to be let in. But the groom refuses to open the door, claiming he doesn’t know them. He is fibbing, of course. He knows very well who they are. But he judges them unworthy of joining the celebration.

Jesus ends by telling us the moral of the story: “Keep awake, therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”

So how do we interpret this allegory? Well, the groom clearly represents the Messiah, Jesus himself, when he returns on the Last Day after a long delay. The ten bridesmaids represent the Christian community, and the oil for the torches probably represents faith in action. The wise are prepared for the Second Coming with a supply of good works, while the foolish have no good deeds to witness to their faith.

Finally, what about the final command to “keep awake.” Taken literally, it makes little sense, since even the wise bridesmaids in the parable fell asleep. In this context, I think we have to understand the “keep awake” command as a command to be prepared at all times.

Jesus’ parable is troubling in several respects. The wise bridesmaids, who represent good Christians, come across as selfish. The groom, who represents Jesus himself, comes across as petulant and vindictive. And the ending is not a happy one, at least not for the foolish bridesmaids.

The author Nikos Kazantzakis was so bothered by the ending, that, in his novel The Last Temptation of Christ, he changed it:

“[The bridegroom] called to his servants to open the door. ‘This is a wedding,’ he cried. ‘Let everyone eat, drink, and be merry. Open the door for the foolish virgins, and wash and refresh their feet, for they have run much.’ ”

In some ways, this rewritten ending is much more pleasing. But it has a fatal flaw: it implies that our actions in this life have no ultimate consequences. And according to Jesus, that is just not the case. So perhaps the original story, as unsatisfying as it may be, is the more truthful one.

While Jesus’ parable speaks of the Day of the Lord, when the Messiah returns unexpectedly to judge the world, it applies equally well to another event that can come unexpectedly—our own death. For one way or another, we will all stand before the Lord and be judged. Today, we have been solemnly warned to be ready at all times to face that final judgment. And how we fare will all depend on us—on our faith and on our faithfulness, on how well we have loved God and on how well we have loved our neighbor.

And so, my fellow bridesmaids, let us be wise and prepare ourselves even now for the coming of the Bridegroom, for we “know neither the day nor the hour.” Amen.

© 2020 by Darren Miner. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

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For All the Saints

Gospel Reading

By the Rev. Darren Miner

All Saints’ Day is a “principal feast” in the calendar of the Episcopal Church. It is one of the seven feast days when Beth and I normally get to smoke up the church with incense—but not this year—this year is hardly normal! But pandemic notwithstanding, here we are, gathered together virtually to remember all God’s holy people: the official saints found in the volume Lesser Feasts and Fasts and the unofficial parish saints who have gone to glory during the last twelve months.

Now, some parishes prefer to remember the unofficial saints on November 2, All Souls’ Day, in a “separate but equal” celebration. But I am firmly against making any such distinction. Pastorally, it may make sense, but theologically, not so much! So on this day, we celebrate the blessed Virgin Mary, St. John the Baptist, St. Peter, and St. Paul, as well as St. Kate Schultz and St. Judy Wargo.

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St. Kate Schultz was an integral part of this faith community for decades. She taught Sunday school. She sang in the choir. She served on every possible committee. She helped out with every fundraiser. She opened her home to Christian study groups. And she opened her home to a fellow parishioner in need. As you know, St. Kate was an intelligent and well-read woman, and she knew a thing or two about the Christian faith. But more than that, she actually lived out her faith!

Likewise, St. Judy Wargo served the church faithfully decade after decade and will be sorely missed. She served the children, when this church had children. She led the bazaar a time or two. She served on vestry more times than I can count. But I remember her best as the consummate junior warden. And if you ever wondered why she didn’t hug or shake hands at the Peace, that was because she had a compromised immune system. Just attending the Eucharist was a risk to her life, but she came anyway. That’s what I call courage! That’s what I call faith!

But the point of today’s celebration is not only to remember the holy people of God who have preceded us in death, but also to remember our own calling to a life of holiness. And to this end, we were presented with today’s Gospel reading from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, which deals precisely with issues of holy living.

Jesus begins his famous sermon by assuring the poor, the grieving, the hungry, and the oppressed that they are blessed, that they are fortunate. What on earth does Jesus mean by declaring that those who suffer are actually fortunate? Well, they are fortunate because God loves them so very much, knows their pain, and will reward them accordingly. Yes, God loves all his children, but God’s primary concern is always for the “losers” of this world, for the underdogs who cannot fend for themselves.

As disciples of Jesus Christ, we are called to side with the losers of this world as well. We are meant to help the poor, whether they be poor in money or poor in spirit. We are meant to comfort those who are in mourning. We are meant to protect the meek and the vulnerable. We are meant to feed the hungry and to give drink to the thirsty, whether they hunger and thirst for earthly food and drink or for righteousness. We are meant to side with the merciful, and to be merciful ourselves. We are called to be pure in heart, to refrain from judging others and always to give others the benefit of the doubt. Lastly, we are called to be peacemakers, active peacemakers, in our families, in this parish, and in the world.

But, there is a cost to discipleship. If we live such a holy life, we will suffer for it, one way or another. For some people will, no doubt, take advantage of our meekness. Others will take advantage of our generosity. Some may ridicule and belittle us, mocking our “naïveté.” If this should happen, “rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”

Now, what our heavenly reward will look like is something of a mystery. As St. John writes, “What we will be has not yet been revealed.” But he then goes on to promise that “we will be like [God], for we will see him as he is.” Such a promise beggars the imagination! The Revelation to John attempts to describe the situation, using imagery that obscures as much as it reveals. But one thing is made clear: many will be saved from every people and nation. And there, before the throne of God, “God will wipe away every tear.” And there, in the company of the blessed Virgin Mary, St. John the Baptist, St. Peter, and St. Paul, we will be reunited with departed friends and family, and with this parish’s most recent saints in triumph: St. Kate Schultz and St. Judy Wargo.

Amen.

© 2020 by Darren Miner. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

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The Messiah’s Two Commandments

Gospel Reading

By the Rev. Darren Miner

In today’s Gospel reading, we get two snippets from a debate between Jesus and the Pharisees. The first snippet is about which commandment in the Law of Moses is the greatest. The second snippet is about the identity of the Messiah. Let me deal with snippet #2 first.

Jesus wants to silence the Pharisees who have been plaguing him with trick questions. So he asks them a riddle about the identity of the Messiah. He quotes the first verse of Psalm 110, written by King David about the crowning of a future Messiah. In that verse, David refers to the Messiah as “my Lord.” Now, biblical prophecy foretold that the Messiah would be a descendent of David. And in a patriarchal culture such as ancient Israel, the ancestor is usually given higher rank than the descendent. Why, then, would David refer to his own descendent as “my Lord”? Well, the Pharisees can’t solve this riddle, and they wisely stop pestering Jesus. We, on the other hand, have the answer. As the foster son of Joseph, Jesus the Messiah is the descendent of King David by adoption and can legitimately be called a Son of David. But as the only Son of God, Jesus outranks any earthly king, including his royal ancestor.

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Now, let’s turn to the first snippet from the debate. What is the greatest commandment in the Law of Moses? Jesus answers, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” But that commandment alone is not sufficient to summarize the purpose of the entire Law of Moses, so Jesus adds a second commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” He tells them that these commandments are the two hinges that hold up the door of Holy Scripture. Now, Jesus is not saying that the other biblical commandments count for nothing. Far from it! But he is saying that these two commandments give us the lens by which to view all of Scripture, keeping us focused on what really matters.

As I have stated many times before, when the Bible speaks of love, it means action as opposed to mere sentiment. Yes, it is good to like God and our neighbor. But that is not what is being asked of us. We are asked to love God and our neighbor. In other words, we are expected to perform actions that express our loving regard for God and neighbor.

So, how might we show our love of God? Well, we might decide to forgive him, rather than hold a grudge, when he lets us down. We’ve all felt that feeling, I suspect. We expect God to protect us from harm, but then we get hit by something like a pandemic. And we get angry at God, good and angry. Maybe we rail at him, or maybe we give him the silent treatment. And that’s OK, so long as we quickly move on from that anger to forgiveness. And if we want to show our love of God, we need to talk to God on a daily basis, not just on Sunday mornings, and we need to listen for God’s response. And lastly, we need to get to know God personally, through prayer and Bible study.

And much the same applies with the love of neighbor. Sooner or later, some other human being is going to hurt you or disappoint you. And you won’t like it. Why should you? But then you have to decide to move from anger and resentment to showing love, even if you don’t quite feel the love at first. And just as I advised you to talk to God regularly, so must you talk to your neighbor and listen when your neighbor responds. Honest communication is a part of any loving relationship—just ask anyone who’s been happily married for a decade or two!

Now, none of this is easy at the best of times, and these are not the best of times. The loneliness and limitations of the pandemic put us all in a black mood from time to time. We all feel cut off from one another. And to make matters even worse, the divisive politics of the current moment foment anger and resentment throughout this nation, and it’s not by accident. Frankly, it has never been harder to love our neighbor—especially if that neighbor supports a different candidate for President! But it is precisely in such circumstances as these that we must hold fast to the core teachings found in today’s Gospel reading: Jesus Christ, Son of David and Son of God, would have us practice love of God and love of neighbor—always and everywhere, no matter the cost, till the day we die. For the sake of him who suffered on the cross for love of us, let’s not let him down!

© 2020 by Darren Miner. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

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Give to God the Things that Are God’s

Gospel Reading

By the Rev. Darren Miner

Today’s Gospel reading looks like a straightforward debate over taxes, something we’re all familiar with. But there’s more going on here than meets the eye. An unnatural coalition of Jesus’ opponents has come together to bring Jesus down. I say “unnatural,” because the Pharisees were a Judean religious sect, while the Herodians were political lackeys of Rome from outside Judea. The Pharisees and the Herodians didn’t have anything in common, other than their antipathy to Jesus. But as the saying goes: “politics makes strange bedfellows.”

The Pharisees and Herodians posed the perfect “gotcha” question: “Is it in accordance with God’s law to pay the Roman poll tax?” It was a trick question, you see, and there was no right answer. If Jesus answered, “No, it is not lawful to pay the Roman tax,” then the Romans would have arrested him for sedition. If he answered, “Yes, it is right to pay the tax,” then he would have alienated a large percentage of the Jewish people, who resented the heavy taxation of their Roman masters. Either way, it would be the end of the Jesus movement. Or so Jesus’ enemies hoped!

But Jesus saw through the trap, and he cleverly avoided it. He refused to give the yes-or-no answer that his opponents had anticipated. Instead, he asked them to show him a coin and then asked them whose image and inscription was found on the coin. They brought out a denarius and responded, “Caesar’s.” Chalk up one point to Jesus! By bringing a denarius into the temple precincts, Jesus’ opponents had committed sacrilege and made their hypocrisy self-evident. You see, one side of the denarius declared that Caesar’s stepfather, Augustus, was a god, an assertion tantamount to idolatry.

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But Jesus didn’t stop there. He went on to answer to their question, albeit indirectly. He instructed them: “Give back to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” We are told that Jesus’ opponents were amazed and walked away in defeat. What else could they do? How could they argue with what Jesus had said? For one thing, it probably wasn’t clear to them what Jesus even meant by this ambiguous quip. And frankly, I doubt they gave it much thought.

But as disciples of Jesus, we are obliged to give it a great deal of thought. What does it really mean for us today to “give back to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s”? Broadly speaking, there are three schools of thought on the matter.

The first, espoused by John Calvin, focuses on the bit about Caesar. It interprets Jesus’ statement as granting divine sanction for the authority of the state. But I don’t think that Jesus was primarily concerned with the power of the state. It would be wholly inconsistent with his teaching about the Kingdom of God.

The Church Father Tertullian had a better explanation. He noted that the coin in question bore the image of Tiberius Caesar. As Jesus implied, that coin belonged to Caesar because it bore his image. But what then belongs to God? Tertullian’s answer was quite simple: that which bears the image of God. And the first chapter of Genesis tells us precisely what bears the image of God—we do!—human beings do! “In the image of God, he created them. Male and female he created them.” In this interpretation, Jesus has conceded that the coin in question belonged to Caesar and should be given back to him. But he then reminded the Pharisees and Herodians that they must likewise give back to God that which belongs to God—their very selves!

But there is a third, and even better, answer to the question “What are the things that are God’s?” Surely, everything without exception belongs to God, since God created “all that is, seen and unseen.” In that case, the proper response for a baptized Christian would be, not just to give back to God his or her self, but everything that he or she possesses as well. In this interpretation, Jesus is calling for a form of stewardship much more radical than any annual pledge.

Yes, we are now in the midst of our annual pledge drive. And yes, I urge you to give generously to support this church. (I want it to survive for another 100 years!) But I am urging you to do much more than to give your money. I am urging you to rededicate all that you are and all that you have to God’s use, holding nothing back. For true Christian stewardship admits of no half measures. Now, as to the details of how that might play out, that is between you and God.

With this in mind, let us start off our rededication to the Lord by reciting that ancient baptismal statement of faith, known as the Apostles’ Creed….

© 2020 by Darren Miner. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

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Dressing for the Feast

Gospel Reading

By the Rev. Darren Miner

In today’s Gospel reading from Matthew, we find Jesus arguing with the chief priests and Pharisees of Jerusalem. He tells them a parable, an allegory really, about the Kingdom of Heaven, an allegory that ends with a dire warning. He likens the Kingdom of Heaven to a royal wedding banquet. Now, the key to understanding any allegory is to know what each person, place, and thing in the story represents. In a sense, allegories are written in code. This particular allegory is quite complicated. So, let me just go ahead and give you the decoded version.

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God sent his prophets to the leaders of Israel and invited them into his Kingdom. But they refused. God sent more prophets. Some leaders of the people dismissed the call because they were more interested in money and power. Others reacted violently to God’s call: they killed God messengers, the prophets. Because of the violence of these leaders, God allowed their nation to be destroyed. God then sent missionaries and apostles to go far and wide, from one end of the earth to the other, to invite other people into the Kingdom of Heaven. And the missionaries and apostles invited many people—some righteous and some unrighteous—to join the community of the New Covenant. Then, in the fullness of time, God came to examine those who had responded to this second invitation. And he found that some had not responded with a whole heart. Some had not spiritually prepared themselves for life in the Kingdom. These people were handed over to the angels to be cast into Hell. For many are invited to share eternal life, but few are found worthy, few are chosen.

That last bit is the kicker! “Few are chosen.” Up till then, we can follow along without the least bit of anxiety. After all, we are not the leaders of ancient Israel who ignored, or even killed, the prophets. We are those other people who were invited later and accepted the invitation. Everything was fine, till Jesus had to ruin it all with that last saying: “For many are called, but few are chosen.” That final word of warning leaves us all wondering, “Will I be found worthy of the Kingdom of God? Will I be chosen?”

Let me reassure you just a bit. Jesus is fond of hyperbole. He quite often exaggerates to get his point across. So I wouldn’t read too much into his use of the word “few.” Even so, we are left with the troublesome teaching that not everyone who calls him- or herself a Christian will be saved. Not everyone who owns a Bible is destined for the Kingdom of Heaven.

Now, we have two options: 1) we can worry about the state of our salvation till we are sick at heart, or 2) we can do something about it. We can prepare ourselves for life in the Kingdom. We can prepare our spiritual wedding robes, so to speak.

St. Paul advises: “Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.” Let me be a little more specific. First, join the Christian Church, if you haven’t already. Accept Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior, and be baptized in the Name of the Holy Trinity. Second, read the Bible regularly, focusing especially on the life and teachings of Jesus Christ. Third, pray every single day, and attend church services every Sunday. (And now that worship is all online, you don’t even have to get out of your pajamas in order to attend!) Fourth, practice love. Practice it as a musician practices his or her instrument. Practice it till you become a virtuoso. Fifth, when you screw up (and we all do!), repent. Acknowledge what you’ve done. Make amends, if possible. And do everything in your power to turn back to the path of Jesus Christ. Last but not least, trust God. Despite the harsh saying that concludes today’s Gospel reading, God is, in fact, both merciful and compassionate. And my hope is that, in the end, very many will be chosen.

Amen.

© 2020 by Darren Miner. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

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Producing the Fruits of the Kingdom

Bible Readings

By the Rev. Darren Miner

The parable in today’s Gospel reading is commonly called the Parable of the Wicked Tenants. What Jesus has done is to take a prophecy of Isaiah that bordered on the edge of being an allegory, and he has reworked it into a full-fledged allegory about his own time, with himself as one of the characters. Just about everyone agrees that the landowner is God; the vineyard is Israel; the tenants are the political leaders; the landowner’s slaves are the prophets; and the landowner’s son is Jesus himself.

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The point of the allegory is clear. The leaders of the nation will come to ruin, because they have ignored the will of God again and again and would stop at nothing to get what they want, even if that meant killing God’s Son. And yet, we are told that their destruction is not just because they killed the Son of God, but also because they did not “produce the fruits of the Kingdom.”

This parable could not be more timely. Soon we will be filling out ballots to elect political leaders and to decide upon a variety of political policies. And it behooves us to consider our vote in light of Christian moral teaching. In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus speaks about the fruits of the Kingdom, but he does not enumerate those fruits. However, St. Paul speaks about something quite similar, the fruits of the Spirit, and he enumerates nine of them. They are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

Now, when we receive those lengthy ballots with pages upon pages of candidates and ballot measures, we may be tempted to take the easy route and vote the party line. It’s quick and simple, and it doesn’t require any soul searching. But we are supposed to search our souls! We are Christians, after all! What if, before filling out that ballot, we asked ourselves this question: Does this candidate display love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control? If we wanted to be mathematically precise, we could even make a spreadsheet for the candidates and rate them in each of those nine categories.

Or what if we took a look at the ballot measures and asked which of these is most likely to produce the fruits of the Kingdom? As I mentioned, Jesus never gives us an itemized list of the fruits of the Kingdom. We have to read through all the Gospels to find them. But I’ll save you some time and list a few that I have come across. God wills, and Jesus wills, that we care for the poor and the homeless among us. We are to provide for widows and orphans. We are to welcome refugees and aliens into our land and treat them as well as fellow citizens. We are to lift up the oppressed. We are to provide healing and health care for the sick. We are to maintain equal justice for the rich and the poor, the black and the white.

Some have argued that Jesus’ teachings should not affect public policy and that we Christians should disregard his teachings when we fill out our ballots. Stuff and nonsense! That’s not what the Founding Fathers meant by the separation of Church and State. In point of fact, Jesus’ teachings are intended to inform all our actions, including our political actions. For, as individuals or even as a church, we cannot produce the fruits of the Kingdom on a large scale. But as a nation, we just might—if we had the will. Of course, Jesus does not say how we are to accomplish these things. He does not lay down a precise political and economic plan for achieving them. He leaves the details to us to figure out. And different political parties may have very different ideas about how best to achieve these goals. And that is legitimate! What is not legitimate is when parties or politicians abandon even one of these goals, for these things are the fruits of the Kingdom of God.

In today’s parable, just as in Isaiah’s prophecy, there is a warning to a nation. God’s patience is limited. And if you do not produce the fruits of the Kingdom, there will be a time of reckoning, a time of judgment. While the point of today’s parable is the judgment of the political leaders, in a democracy such as ours that freely chooses its leaders, that judgment may very well redound to certain members of the voting public. As political pundits today are fond of saying, “Elections have consequences.” Oh yes, elections have consequences, and sometimes one of those consequences is divine judgment. So vote wisely!

Amen.

© 2020 by Darren Miner. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

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The Kingdom of Heaven Is Like…

Gospel Reading

By the Rev. Darren Miner

In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus uses a rather disconcerting parable to try to explain the inexplicable, namely, the nature of the Kingdom of Heaven. I call this parable disconcerting, because the main character, the landowner, doesn’t act rationally. Any rational landowner would pay his workers according to the hours they had worked. But this guy does something quite different. He pays everyone a full day’s wages, even if they had worked only one hour. Why would he do that?

Well, consider the fact that the workers in question are day laborers. They typically earn one denarius a day, barely enough to feed their family for one day. So if they don’t get hired for a full day’s wages, their family goes without food. The landowner’s payment scheme in Jesus’ parable isn’t rational. But it is merciful. The landowner knows what’s at stake for these day laborers, and he makes sure that their families will all eat, no matter how few hours the laborers had worked.

Even so, the landowner’s actions are not “fair and equitable.” Presumably, the early workers could have been given a bonus. And if they had, we would have no complaint with this parable. But there is no bonus!

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We are left with questions. What are we meant to learn from this parable? And how are we meant to go about interpreting it? Well, as is often the case with the Bible, the answers to these two questions vary widely. That being said, most interpreters understand this parable to be an allegory of some sort.

Some Church Fathers understood the parable to be an allegory about the salvation of the Gentiles. In this interpretation, the Jews are the workers who were hired first, while the Gentiles are the workers hired later. And they all get the same reward: salvation. The problem with this interpretation is that, when Jesus told the parable, there were no Gentile disciples.

Others have interpreted this parable in a more individualistic manner. The first-hired workers are people who have been faithful servants of God all their lives, while those hired later represent people who converted later in life. This makes a bit more sense. But it has its problems, since it encourages folks to defer the burdens of Christian discipleship as long as possible, in the knowledge that, in the end, the reward will be the same.

Moreover, this interpretation is contradicted by other teachings of Jesus. Elsewhere, in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus encourages his disciples to pray, fast, and give alms, so as to store up treasure in heaven. The implication is that good works do count for something in the afterlife, even if the Kingdom is not a strict meritocracy.

The problem with these allegorical interpretations, I think, is that they push the parable past its intended limits. Perhaps it is better to abandon the search for an allegorical interpretation that ties the whole parable together neatly and instead to be satisfied with learning a few disparate lessons.

I think it safe to assume that the landowner in the parable represents God; after all, Jesus says that this parable is a teaching about the Kingdom of Heaven. If that one assumption is correct, we learn several important facts about the divine nature. We learn that God is a free agent, unencumbered by our limited human standards of fairness and equity. We learn that God is merciful and generous, giving to those who quite frankly do not merit his generosity. And most importantly, we learn that God is responsive to the needs of the disadvantaged.

But, if you ask me, Jesus also means for us to learn something about ourselves. That’s why, in this parable, the landowner does not give a bonus to the early workers. This so-called “unfair” and “unjust” behavior on the part of the landowner is meant to get our attention and to make us question our own attitudes. The landowner responds to the grumbling of the disappointed laborers by accusing them of envy. The charge, of course, is really aimed at Jesus’ audience—in other words, at us! The point of that one disconcerting element of the parable is to make us aware of our own tendency to feel envy, to covet the blessings of others.

Jesus ends his teaching with a saying: “The last will be first, and the first will be last.” Well, with all due respect to Jesus, I think there is another saying that works much better as a finale to today’s parable (and as a finale to this sermon): “You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you just might find you get what you need” (song lyric by the Rolling Stones).

Amen.

© 2020 by Darren Miner. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

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You Need to Forgive

By the Rev. Darren Miner

Gospel Reading

Last week, the Gospel reading dealt with the discipline of troublemakers who sin against other members of the church. Today’s Gospel reading deals with forgiving those same troublemakers.

It starts out with Peter asking Jesus a question: How often do I have to forgive a fellow disciple who keeps on sinning against me? What a telling question! It tells me that things haven’t changed much in 2000 years.

If you have ever served on a parish committee or volunteered for a church fundraiser, you know what kind of little sins can happen. One person seems a little too bossy. Another person seems a little too temperamental. Yet another just won’t stop talking. And the next thing you know, tempers flare! And if left unchecked, such little flare-ups can grow into large wildfires.

Jesus’ answer to this problem is quite simple: forgiveness. Now, Peter imagines that he should forgive someone no more than seven times. That seems like a reasonable limit to him. But Jesus responds that we should forgive one another seventy-seven times. In other words, forgiveness has nothing to do at all with being reasonable.

Figuring that Peter won’t understand this teaching, Jesus tries to explain it with a parable about a rich king and his slaves. The king forgives a huge debt to a slave who cannot possibly repay what he owes. By rights, the king could sell the slave and all his family in order to recoup a tiny portion of the debt. But when the slave pleads for mercy, the king shows compassion and forgives the entire debt.

Now, you have to realize just how large that debt was. Ten thousand talents is almost eight billion dollars! Unfortunately, the slave whose huge debt was erased does not himself learn forgiveness. He accosts a fellow slave who owes him around thirteen thousand dollars and demands payment in full. When he doesn’t get it, he has that slave imprisoned!

When the king gets wind of the first slave’s behavior, he reinstates the entire eight billion dollar debt. And he sentences the unforgiving slave to be tortured until such time as he can pay back the entire amount.

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Just in case Peter still doesn’t understand, Jesus comes right out and tells him the moral of the story: “So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.” In other words, God has forgiven you a huge debt that you could not possibly have paid off. But there is one condition: you have to forgive others their debts to you.

That ought to shake us up a bit. We tend to act like God’s forgiveness is both unconditional and free of charge. But evidently, that is just not the case. We are supposed to “pay it forward,” as the saying goes. God forgives us our sins when we cannot possibly pay the price, but then we are expected to follow up by forgiving others their sins against us.

Now, people are sometimes confused about exactly what forgiveness is. But first, let me say what forgiveness is not. It is not forgetting. It is not denial. It is not even reconciliation. Forgiveness is fully acknowledging that someone has wronged you and rightly deserves punitive consequences, but then excusing them from those consequences.

Now, the main reason we should forgive is because it is God’s will for us. But there is another good reason. If we hold onto our grievances, it changes us over time. It makes us bitter, resentful, and angry—so bitter, resentful, and angry that we are walled off from God’s grace. So, you see, we don’t forgive because the people who wronged us deserve forgiveness. More often than not, they don’t! We do it for God, and we do it for ourselves.

Now, I sometimes wish that the Gospels included a complete course on how to forgive in ten easy steps. But they don’t. So here are three not-so-easy steps that I have come up with to get you started:

1)    Refrain from replaying the incident in your mind. That only keeps the hurt fresh.

2)    As best you can, practice forgiveness toward the offending party, even if you don’t feel much forgiveness in your heart. (Practice makes perfect, after all.) And

3)    Pray! Pray for yourself, and pray for the person who wronged you. Such prayer, if sincere, can be life-changing.

Amen.

© 2020 by Darren Miner. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

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