Archives for October 2011

I wonder if anyone of us knows the kind of people that Jesus is talking about today, Pentecost 20, Proper 26 – 2011

[RCL] Joshua 3:7-17 and Psalm 107:1-7, 33-37 (Track 2: Micah 3:5-12 and Psalm 43); 1 Thessalonians 2:9-13; Matthew 23:1-12

I wonder if anyone of us knows the kind of people that Jesus is talking about today.

Clarence Jordan, in his Cotton Patch Gospel series, presents today’s reading from Matthew like this:

“Don’t let yourselves be called ‘Reverend,’ for you have the one pastor and you are all brothers. And don’t call any human being ‘father,’ for you have but one spiritual father; neither be called ‘Doctor,’ for you have one doctor – the Leader. Your top man shall be your houseboy. So who promotes himself gets bumped, and whoever bumps himself gets promoted.”

Clarence Jordan knew a little bit about these kinds of people; he even was one for time. Getting his Ph.D. in New Testament afforded Jordan with many of the honors that he, through the words of Jesus, finds troubling today. But Jordan did something unusual for his day, and it’s unusual today as well. He took the gospel seriously and formed an inter-racial Christian community. Now all this happened in the early 1940s, and it happened in South Georgia. “Dr. Jordan” became “farmer Clarence,” and all because of his devotion to his one teacher, Father, and Lord. Now, we are not all called to become farmers for Jesus, but we are all called to contend with what Jesus lays out for us today.

Today’s gospel reading comes from the long section in Matthew where Jesus is doing a lot of teaching. First, Jesus says that his followers ought to respect the authority of the Pharisees and the scribes. When Jesus says that they “sit on Moses’ seat,” he is, in effect, saying that these religious leaders have legitimate authority. Jesus never denounces the Law, the Torah, or the traditions of Israel. The original covenant, the first covenant, between God and Abraham, then through the life of Israel, was, and still is, in effect. Jesus is holding his listeners accountable to the Law. What Jesus is doing is lambasting these religious authorities for being too showy with the public expression of their faith. It is not that their phylacteries are wrong to wear; it’s that they have made a prayer shawl into an article of bragging.

After ridiculing the Pharisees and scribes for their showy spirituality, Jesus then goes on to say that we should recognize no rabbi, father, or teacher except Christ. This is not to be taken literally, but it is to be taken seriously. Of course, we all have fathers and teachers, but Jesus’ injunction is on our proper understanding of where we stand in the grand scheme of things. Here, Jesus is making a claim very much like the one that God made on Mount Sinai when he delivered the Ten Commandments to Moses. The first commandment was: you shall have no other gods before me. God expects us to trust him, solely and totally. God is reminding us that we all have the inclination within us to look around and try to make something complete us; this is the heart of idolatry. Things can never complete us, neither can people. It’s wrong on both counts, but it is especially unfair to make an idol of people. Why would we put such a burden on our spouses, our partners, our parents, our children? They cannot be God for us; only God can be God. It is God who is the source of our happiness, satisfaction, and hope.

This is precisely what Jesus is saying to us today. There’s only one father, there is only one rabbi, and there is only one teacher. There’s only one initiator of the Kingdom of God, and that is Jesus Christ. Of course, teachers and other mentors are good. We all have those special individuals who show us the path to approaching God, to deeper knowledge of ourselves and our Lord. But God is the goal, God is always the goal. And we never come to him but through his own bidding. God has made himself known to us first in the life of Israel, then through Jesus Christ, and now we know him through his Holy Spirit, which enables us to come to God.

Recognizing that there is only one God, one father, and one teacher is easier said than done. Usually, when we come to know something, we know it as fact and then proceed based on the facts. God has given us a peculiar commandment: to put all of our faith, hope, and trust in him and him alone. All the saints, sages, and scholars before us on our way to God have always put this kind of faith into terms dealing with trust. And the funny thing about it is that trust can only be built by extending it. When we trust someone, we don’t really know what’s going to happen. Trusting God is hard. If following God, completely and totally, were easy, everyone would be doing it.

It simply isn’t enough for us to be admirers of Christ, we need to be disciples. We become disciples by having one God, one teacher, and following him first. Our trust in God will cause His faithfulness to spring forward and drive us to deeper and deeper love for ourselves, our neighbors, and most importantly, for our God.

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Written by the Rev. Joshua Bowron
The Rev. Joshua Bowron is the senior assistant to the rector at Saint John’s Episcopal Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, where he lives with his wife and three children.

Faith, hope, and charity, Pentecost 19, Proper 25 – 2011

[RCL] Deuteronomy 34:1-12 and Psalm 90:1-6, 13-17 (Track 2: Leviticus 19:1-2, 15-18 and Psalm 1); 1 Thessalonians 2:1-8; Matthew 22:34-46

Faith, hope, and charity are three of the seven virtues; the others are prudence, justice, temperance, and courage. Faith, hope, and charity are ascribed to St. Paul. Both his writings and ministry, as chronicled by the author of Acts, show that he taught and lived these three great virtues. Let’s take a look at each of them.

Faith is our heritage going back to Abraham, who was led with Sarah into the wilderness, always assured by God there was a plan and that his descendants would be like the stars of heaven. The Abrahamic journey is more than just a trip; it is a spiritual quest that still haunts us and inspires us today. We can picture them journeying through the desert, standing out under the stars at night, and wondering where they were destined to settle.

Moses, another great leader of faith, follows the path of Abraham and Sarah in his own journey from slavery to freedom with the people of Israel. The great faith expressed in the history of African Americans as they moved from slavery to freedom still shapes our church and its life today – faith that one day all people will walk together in harmony and diversity.

Faith is a great part of Jesus’ ministry. Jesus teaches us that faith like a mustard seed is sufficient. He teaches us what faith in God can do in the face of sadness and loss. And Jesus teaches us to have faith that the Father’s will be done, just as Christ himself did as he underwent the agony of the Garden on the night of his betrayal.

Faith is the dynamo of our religion, a faith that God is at work behind the headlines, in the streets and the desolate places, bringing about a plan of salvation; faith that all of us have a part in that plan; faith that one day there will be no more crying or weeping, but shouts of triumphant joy at the coming of the kingdom.

Meanwhile, practicing faith as a virtue remains an inspiration. “She is a real woman of faith.” “He may have lost his job, but he never lost his faith.” Faith, for us, is in believing there are answers to the question “Why?” And faith does not need to know the answer right now. Faith is waiting, knowing that God may have something better for us in mind.

Hope works in our lives, not because of what we do, but as the work of the Holy Spirit. The power of our faith causes us to dare to hope, even when the cynic denies it, and hope conquers our despair at the unhappiness and folly we see in the world.

Hope is framed in the things that are unseen, according to Paul. We won’t know what to hope for because we have not yet seen what it will be.

A close ally of faith, hope puts us in a place of anticipation, not silly excitement. Hope gives us our morning resolve to arise and get going because it is God’s day, and there will be something of beauty and wonder for us in it. This hope is found most profoundly in places where the future is mocked by poverty, cruelty, and indifference. It is also found in our culture among people who know their work is not in vain, that what they are doing somehow is preparing the way for the future, and that will be better because of what we do even now.

Charity is an act of love: something that burns white hot in us, again the work of the Spirit. Charity is unconditional in its application and causes us to give freely of our abundance to overcome scarcity. Charity is giving both of our treasure and talent, but also of our love for others. It places others first as an act of obedience, not second to our own needs.

Charity always has enough for others. It is what creates miracles when people in a church decide to do something for others and find an abundance of gifts for that ministry.

Charity does more than cause us to care, it causes us to care with boundaries that allow others to grow in grace, knowing they are supported by a fellowship that cares about them but will not overwhelm them.

Charity works when elaborate plans fail. It is simple in its application and does not understand complexity. It is sometimes compared to a lamp that sheds light in the darkness of human want, darkness that is the poverty of both spirit and purse.

All three of these virtues – faith, hope, and charity – are gifts of the Creator. They are not human inventions. They existed at the dawn of creation and are firmly planted by God in what it means to be human.

One can find them in today’s gospel reading in Jesus’ rabbinical response to the question put to him, “Which commandment in the law is the greatest?” Jesus’ response is the summary of the law: to love God and our neighbor. In a few words Jesus summarizes all the teaching of the law and the prophets and includes, by implication, faith, hope and charity.

Who could love God and not have faith in what God is doing?

Who could love God and not have hope that God’s plan of salvation is being worked out daily and that we have a part in it?

Who could love their neighbor and not feel the heat of charity in their relationships with others we are sent to serve?

Asking the question about what God commands is good; but failure to heed the response is folly. The wisdom of the world knows little of the virtues; they are often replaced by greed, cynicism, and self-love. Christians are constantly challenged by the conflict between faith, hope, and charity and the world’s wisdom.

From today’s collect, we learn again that these gifts of God may be prayed for and increased in us:

Almighty and everlasting God, increase in us the gifts of faith, hope, and charity; and that we may obtain what you promise, make us love what you command; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

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Written by the Rev. Ben E. Helmer
Ben Helmer is vicar of St. James’ Episcopal Church in Eureka Springs, Arkansas. He lives with his wife in nearby Holiday Island. E-mail: bhelmer1247@msn.com.

You have to be taught to love, Pentecost 13, Proper 19 – 2011

[RCL] Exodus 14:19-31 and Psalm 114 or Exodus 15:1b-11,20-21 (or Genesis 50:15-21 and Psalm 103:(1-7), 8-13); Romans 14:1-12; Matthew 18:21-35

You have to be taught to hate.

Little boys do not stitch together their own Klansman robes. Young girls do not look longingly at vests in shop windows with visions of being a suicide bomber. Yes, children will readily turn sticks into swords and guns for their play. But they do not name someone as “other,” the enemy, an object of hate. You have to be taught to name the ones to be feared and fought as “the Russians,” “the Vietnamese,” “the Iraqis.” And while the color of someone’s skin does not readily carry values, children can learn to hate based on the differing tones as easily as they can be taught to hate a group of people for the attractions they feel or the beliefs they hold.

The specific gravity of parents’ thoughts can tip the scales of a child’s heart very easily at the earliest age. Kids can barely grasp the meaning of “cat” and “cup” and “car,” and soon after are taught to use that God-given ability for speech to spew hate.

No one is immune to learning hatred. But the progress of a child’s path is much faster than an adult’s, and we are startled at a kindergartner who hates someone because he is a Jew, or because she is a Muslim, or because the family is Christian. The youngster is not clear on what the words mean, just that the person is “other,” and dangerous to all that is good – or so those he or she loves have said.

This same path to hate can be followed at any age. Teens with no hope of a future can readily be shown how to channel their hopelessness into hate. Grown men and women, too, can channel frustrations and fear into hatred.

How far hatred can carry the human heart was made crushingly clear ten years ago at 8:46 a.m., Eastern Daylight Time. American Airlines Flight 11 from Boston was bound for Los Angeles when it was hijacked 15 minutes into the flight. Loaded with fuel for the cross-country trip, the plane became a guided missile, slamming 91 people into the North Tower of the World Trade Center. Within minutes, the media was going live with news of a terrible accident in New York as firefighters and policeman rushed through Manhattan commuter traffic toward the shredded remains of the upper floors of the tower.

Around the city, eyes looked toward the World Trade Center. Seventeen minutes after the first accident, many more people saw the impossible happen: a second airliner disappeared into the South Tower. The situation came into focus: no accident had occurred. America was under attack.

Unimaginable tragedies piled one upon another, with a plane crashing into the Pentagon and another into a Pennsylvania field. The Twin Towers fell. Before night fell, the nineteen hijackers had killed 2,973 people and sent out waves of grief around the world.

The hijackers had been fed a steady diet of hate. They were consumed by that hate and fed a desire to lash out against the United States in an act of terror more important to them than their own lives.

The carnage of that morning gouged a deep wound in the psyche of the United States. Ten years later, the wound has not completely healed. We fought back, first against the Taliban in Afghanistan, and then against Saddam Hussein and those who supported him in Iraq. Seal Team Six took out Osama Bin Laden, the man behind the terror. Yet none of these actions has brought healing. The surface is scarred over. The pain remains.

On this day, when we remember the carnage wrought, we can recall with crystal clarity the effects of distilled evil. We bring that collective pain here to the altar. And on this day of all days, we hear in our appointed readings of scripture, a mixed message. From Exodus, we get the story of the Children of Israel at the Red Sea. God drives back the water, the people cross on dry land and then Pharaoh and his pursuing army is drowned. The Lord has triumphed gloriously, the horse and rider he has thrown into the sea. This wrath of God seems appropriate. Good destroys evil.

But that is not what followed September 11. God’s judgment still hangs in the balance.

On this day, we also read Jesus’ parable of grace and forgiveness. Jesus tells of a man who is not simply in debt; he faces an impossibly large mountain of money to repay. One Biblical scholar, Eugene Boring, has calculated that as King Herod’s annual income from all taxes from all his territories was a mere 900 talents per year, the 10,000 talents would exceed all of the taxes of Syria, Phoenicia, Judea, and Samaria as well. The parable is hyperbole; no servant could amass a debt so large. Then, when the king cancels the debt, the man, now free from the burden, goes out to demand payment from someone who owes him a debt equal to a hundred days’ wages.

The first debt was so great as to be impossible either to owe or to pay. That is, until we realize that in the parable, it is we who are the debtors. We owe a debt to God that we cannot possibly repay. God has not only given us life, but continues to love us and want what is best for us when our every action falls short of the glory of God. Our sins mount up higher and higher until there is no way we could begin to atone for them. And through faith in Jesus, the Christ, we can repent, turn back from our sins, and find the debt has been canceled. And then, like the merciless servant, we go expecting everyone else to pay up for the hurts they cause us.

Jesus’ point is well made. God has forgiven each of us so much that we should go out to forgive others. But aren’t some acts too great to forgive? On this day of all days, we know how great an evil can grow within the confines of the human heart.

And this one day does not stand alone. World history is packed to the brim with acts of evil. Even within living memory, many of us have seen the killing fields of Cambodia, the wholesale slaughter of Stalin’s iron-fisted reign over Russia, and the genocide of Rwanda. We have learned that once we are taught to demonize those we hate, then any act can be justified. In the death camps of Nazi Germany, we discovered that one can be raised on the poetry of Rilke, the prose of Goethe, the breathtakingly beautiful compositions of Bach, and the moving operas of Wagner, yet use the finest tools of human understanding in the attempt to systematically wipe out a people.

Looking to these acts of extreme violence, we must ask, Are there not some crimes to heinous to forgive? And on this day, we ask, Isn’t forgiving the perpetrators of September 11 too much to ask? How could those of us who remain alive even have the right to forgive?

The answer from scripture is two-fold. First, scripture teaches that judgment is for God alone. Second, we are to forgive as we have been forgiven.

In the reading from Romans, Paul says, “Why do you pass judgment on your brother or sister? Or you, why do you despise your brother or sister? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God.”

We are, each of us accountable for our actions before God. We are not accountable for the injury done to us, but for our reaction to that hurt. We are then accountable for the actions we do in reaction to the pain we are caused.

Jesus, who taught us to pray “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us,” called out from the cross, “Father forgive them for they know not what they do.” Yet, forgiveness can be so difficult. This is true at the global scale with an act like the terrorist attacks we remember today. And forgiveness can cut just as deep for those not directly touched by 9/11, who wonder if they can forgive a father who committed incest, a business partner who stole money, and too many other private tragedies to name.

Yet, not forgiving, means holding on to the hate. Not forgiving someone is like drinking poison in the hope that the other person will die.

This does not speak to how a nation should react when attacked by another nation or by terrorists. Instead, we are speaking about how one might react to the very personal hurt and betrayals he or she has suffered. Will you let hurt fester until it distills into hate? Or will you pray for the grace to forgive?

Archbishop Desmond Tutu knows about forgiveness through the daring act of helping lead South Africa through truth and reconciliation after the end of Apartheid. This involved thousands of acts of confession and forgiveness. He has written of this process saying, “Forgiveness does not mean condoning what has been done. It means taking what happened seriously and not minimizing it; drawing out the sting in the memory that threatens to poison our entire existence. It involves trying to understand the perpetrators and so have empathy, to try to stand in their shoes and appreciate the sort of pressures and influences that might have conditioned them.”

Forgiveness does not have to mean forgetting, and reconciliation is not always possible. Forgiveness means trusting judgment to God, and this is only possible by the grace that comes from God alone. Archbishop Tutu writes, “Forgiving means abandoning your right to pay back the perpetrator in his own coin, but it is a loss that liberates the victim.”

God became human in Jesus of Nazareth. He lived among us, not just teaching about love, but more importantly, showing us the love of God. Jesus chose to show power through his powerlessness on the cross. Jesus continually gave the example of turning the other cheek, of offering mercy, love, and forgiveness. God came in Jesus and offered us the redemptive power of his blood. He also gave us a pattern for how humans can live godly lives.

Jesus’ example was vital, as men and women do not naturally let go of past hurts. We have to learn grace and forgiveness. Children do not learn to forgive unless they are shown by example.

You have to be taught to love.

Written by the Rev. Canon Frank Logue
The Rev. Canon Frank Logue is the Canon to the Ordinary for the Diocese of Georgia.

In the image and likeness, Pentecost 18, Proper 24 – 2011

[RCL] Exodus 33:12-23 and Psalm 99 (Track 2: Isaiah 45:1-7 and Psalm 96:1-9, 10-13); 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10; Matthew 22:15-22

“Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” Generally quoted in its King James version, “Render unto Caesar,” this statement somehow comes easily adrift from its gospel moorings and is usually cited in support of political theories, from tax reforms to freedom of religion in the modern state.

We see this sentence in today’s reading from Matthew 22. Jesus and his closest disciples are in one of the temple courtyards in Jerusalem, where Jesus has been storytelling and teaching. Much of that teaching has been in response to an earlier direct challenge to his authority. Toward the end of a series of teaching parables in Chapters 21 and 22, Matthew tells us that “when the chief priests and the Pharisees heard these parables, they realized that he was speaking about them. They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds because the crowds regarded Jesus as a prophet.”

Questions about Jesus’ authority had been aired throughout his public ministry, but Matthew wants us to understand that the tensions between Jesus and the temple authorities are now reaching critical proportions. In Chapter 22, Matthew writes: “the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap [Jesus] in what he said.”

And now Jesus comes under even more pressure: the temple authorities – chief priests and Pharisees – have already determined to remove him from the public eye. Now the Pharisees have brought members of the Herodians along. These are the courtiers and clients of Herod, Rome’s puppet king. They represent not only the Jewish ruling authority in Judaea outside the city of Jerusalem, but also the threat of Roman intervention in Jesus’ public ministry. Notoriously, Herod and his followers accommodated the Roman occupying power. So when the Herodians show up to listen to Jesus, the authority of Caesar has now entered the scene.

Having built up the picture of powerful challengers, both temple and Roman, now surrounding Jesus on all sides, Matthew shifts gear. Introducing a moment of exaggerated inflated rhetoric typical of any eastern Mediterranean court at that time, he briefly breaks the narrative tension. Pharisees and Herodians alike begin by flattering Jesus, saying, “Teacher we know that you are sincere and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one, for you do not regard people with partiality.”

Entrapment begins with flattery. But then comes what is doubtless meant to be an absolutely killer question: “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor or not?”

A moment’s thought should convince us, however, that this method of entrapping Jesus in his teaching might be a bit silly. Certainly, the Pharisees have heard Jesus teaching before now and they have watched him outwit all his interlocutors, often with quite edgy humor. Their question wants a yes or no answer. Yes, would mean that Jesus is prepared to abandon God’s priorities to accommodate the Romans. No, would mean Jesus is willing to side with rebel political groups such as the Zealots who want the Romans out at all costs. Do they not realize Jesus is too clever to fall into such a simple trap?

We notice that Jesus does not answer the question at all. He turns to the people nearest to him and asks for the coin that is used for the tax. It is interesting that Jesus does not carry such a coin himself. In his lifetime, there were several different tax obligations for a Jew in Jerusalem: the temple tithe incumbent upon all Jews meant one sort of coinage, but the newest tax was the Roman colonial land tax, payable in imperially minted coinage. The fact that Jesus apparently has no such coin is one of several indications in the gospels that Jesus of Nazareth owned neither urban property in lower Galilee nor farmland anywhere else. Jesus stands there, in other words, without any worldly resources in a potentially dangerous situation.

“Whose head is on this coin?” he asks. Because the coin is the Roman land-tax coin, the answer is “Caesar’s.” It might be the head of Augustus, or it might be the head of Tiberius, Matthew does not need to say. Jesus represents the authority neither of the temple nor of the Roman governor. The future of those two political entities, and the monetary tributes that support them, is not Jesus’ future. Nor are those entities the governing factor in the future of those early Christians for whom Matthew is writing. When Matthew’s Jesus says that Pharisee and Herodian alike should give Caesar his due, and give God his due, there is only one future at stake, and that is God’s future. For Matthew, as for ourselves, the reality of that future lies with Jesus: the living face of God.

Shortly after this episode, there is a brief confrontation between Jesus and members of another political body, the Sadducee party; and Matthew notes that from that day, nobody dared to ask Jesus any more questions. The gospel continues with a set of future-oriented parables and sayings given mostly to Jesus’ closest disciples, and then transitions into the great Passion narrative. We leave the reading ruminating upon the possibility that this business never was about coins, tax reforms, or divided loyalties.

As it says in the first chapter of Genesis, we are created “in the image and likeness” of God. We try to live into that empowering image in our political adherences, our economic aims for ourselves and our neighbors, our hopes for our families and friends. In all the complex claims on our loyalties and our finances, our tax dollars and our pension funds, for the children of God there is always and only ever this one priority and one claim upon our lives: the authoritative call and presence of God.

Written by the Rev. Angela V. Askew
The Rev. Angela V. Askew is now retired, but still lives in Brooklyn, New York.

What happens next is big, Pentecost 17, Proper 23 – 2011

[RCL] Exodus 32:1-14 and Psalm 106:1-6, 19-23; Philippians 4:1-9; Matthew 22:1-14

Isn’t today’s gospel reading the darndest parable? The whole thing just sort of jerks along, and doesn’t quite work – especially when you get to the poor fellow who is tossed into the outer darkness for violating the dress code. Puzzling. Let’s unpack it a little and maybe make it a bit easier to grasp.

First of all, this is one of those parables in which the writer, here it’s Matthew, takes a story of Jesus and re-works it for his own purposes. You can see another version of this parable – probably one a lot closer to the one Jesus told – in the fourteenth chapter of Luke. What Matthew does is sort of soup up the story so it isn’t exactly a street-legal parable anymore. Instead, it becomes an allegory of salvation history – a way of telling what Matthew sees as the central movements of God’s actions and plans for all of human history.

Since it’s an allegory and not a parable, we don’t need to bother too much about whether the details of the thing make sense the way they do with regular parables. So, for example, we don’t need to worry about how the king keeps dinner warm while he makes war against the first set of invited guests, destroys their city, and then has the banquet in that same city on pretty much the same day. That sort of thing is no problem in an allegory.

In this allegory, the first guests stand for Israel. The first two sets of slaves who issue the invitation represent the prophets of the old covenant, which is why some of them are beaten up and killed, hardly the usual way of declining an invitation. The city that is destroyed represents Jerusalem.

In the second part of the allegory, the slaves who are sent into the main streets to invite just anybody are the apostles, the followers of Jesus after the resurrection, who brought the church together. And the church, Matthew knew all too well, was filled with both good and bad, righteous and unrighteous, deserving and undeserving. After all, “everyone” means everyone: good, bad, and indifferent. The second crowd is very different from the first group, just as the church was very different from the leaders of Israel.

So, here we are. The wedding hall is filled with all sorts of guests. This precise moment in the story is Matthew’s present, the world, right then, as he knew it. It is also the world as we know it: the present age of the church.

Matthew is expressing the early Christian belief that, in spite of the words of the prophets and of John the Baptist, Israel, especially Israel’s leaders, had repeatedly ignored God’s invitation to his great messianic banquet for his son Jesus. So they are rejected, and the church is formed by the apostles. Remember, the apostles are represented in this allegory by the slaves who are sent to everybody else, to the lower classes, to women, to the gentiles, to the ones who had been ignored. And the apostles are told not to judge, but to invite. That was the way things were when Matthew used this parable of Jesus to tell the story of salvation history.

What happens next is big. Real big. What happens next is the end of all things, the second coming, the final judgment. The King arrives. And the King comes, apparently for the first time, to see his guests, to see who has managed to stumble or to be dragged into the party.

Now, at this point, a lot of Biblical scholars become very interested in the poor guy who gets tossed out. All sorts of things have been written about why he gets the boot, which mostly has to do with guessing what the reference to a “wedding robe” or a “wedding garment” meant back then. Since nobody really knows what a “wedding robe” means, the guesses have run amuck. They have included everything from ordinary clean clothes to a robe everybody supposedly had hanging in their house if they would only take a second to pick it up, to the white garments often given to newly baptized Christians.

Some interpreters even say the problem is the man’s silence, not his clothes. Still others like to talk about an inner state or condition. Some say the wedding robe is a metaphor for a “garment of good works.” Saint Augustine said that the wedding robe was “love that springs from a pure heart, a clear conscience, and a genuine faith.”

Another theory is that the wedding garment was a robe that the host gave to the guests as they arrived that the guests put on over whatever else they were wearing. There’s some good evidence for this understanding, and it fits with what Matthew is talking about.

But remember, what is happening here is not supposed to be a precise example of Palestinian social customs. Concern for accurate detail has gone out the window. This is a story about the final judgment!

So, Matthew is saying that, even though the church is filled with good and bad alike; and even though the apostles who call people to the church are not supposed to judge and are not supposed to exclude; and even though absolutely everyone is invited and absolutely everyone is handed all they need both to be properly dressed and to have a great time at the party; still, sooner or later, the King is going to arrive in person, and if you matter, if you are a real person, then you have to be able to say no.

You have to be able to reject the invitation, to ignore the robe; otherwise, you aren’t really there. The guy who refuses to put on the garment becomes a symbol for everyone invited to the feast who, nevertheless, declines to participate. It’s about the freedom we human beings have to just say no to God; it’s not about some weird overreaction to wearing the wrong outfit.

And it’s important that we have this choice, that we have the freedom to say no, to refuse to put on the garment handed us at the door, and so, thereby, to take our chances outside. If we can’t do that, if we can’t say no, then we can’t really say yes either, and we’re just sheep rounded up into a gilded pen.

Our humanity, our freedom, our very dignity demand that we have what the king gave that fool in the story, which is the opportunity to walk away from the greatest gift he could imagine, a gift he had, in fact, already been given.

And the poor guy had to really work at it; he was given all sorts of chances. But the King would not take away the man’s option to say no. The king would not treat him as someone whose actions didn’t matter and whose choices didn’t matter.

It’s the darndest parable. It is Matthew’s telling of the whole story of sacred history, from the beginning of Israel to his guesses about the final judgment.

The story is mainly about invitations, about God’s constant, persistent, and repeated invitation to God’s great party.

And who knows about our stubborn friend who is gnashing his teeth in the outer darkness? The parable hints that the character of the King is such that, sooner or later, he just might send a slave or two out that direction to issue, as he did with his first set of guests, one more batch of invitations. As the Old Testament reminds us, the Lord has been known to change his mind about acts of destruction.

Written by the Rev. James Liggett
The Rev. James Liggett is rector of St. Nicholas’ Episcopal Church in Midland, Texas. He is a native of Kansas and a graduate of the University of Houston and the Episcopal Divinity School. He has served parishes in Kansas, Texas, and Oklahoma.

We are more connected with everyone than we find it comfortable to admit, Pentecost 16, Proper 22

[RCL] Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20 and Psalm 19 (Track 2: Isaiah 5:1-7 and Psalm 80:7-14); Philippians 3:4b-14; Matthew 21:33-46

Those characters in the parable we just heard – there’s something about them that’s hard to accept.

The landowner responds to the abuse and murder of his slaves by sending still others who are treated by the rebellious tenants in the same way. He responds to this further outrage by sending his son. But the tenants do to him what they did to the slaves: they murder him. At no time does the landowner seek revenge despite the great harm the tenants do, despite their rebellion against his just demands.

The attitude of the tenants is equally hard to accept. Not only do they murder the slaves of the landowner without any provocation, but they get it in their heads that if they murder his son, the inheritance will be theirs. What sort of lawless world do they think this is, that they expect to be rewarded with a piece of property for murdering its rightful heir?

There’s something about the characters in today’s parable that’s hard to accept, yet it’s something that seems all too familiar.

The tenants, rebellious and illogical, bear a painful resemblance to all of us. For we make the same mistake. We think the vineyard belongs to us, to do with as we see fit. So we human beings abuse the land, the water, and the air. We maintain societies in which a decent life for all is not a reality, but at best an ideal. And when the landowner sends his slaves, his prophets, we abuse them and murder them.

It must be as painful now to be a prophet as it was back when Isaiah was sawn in two for speaking the Lord’s word, or when Saint Paul was beheaded for his witness to the risen Christ, or when Bishop Paul Jones of Utah was driven from office in our own church for speaking words of peace during the First World War.

The behavior of the landowner may be hard to accept, but it is not unfamiliar. It is the behavior of God. For still the landowner sends his slaves who proclaim the demands of justice, and still that message is condemned and rejected. The landowner places more trust in us than the evidence warrants, more trust than we deserve. Still the slaves are sent, and still they are killed, yet the voice of their prophecy is never extinguished, for nothing can stop the word of the Lord.

This story of rebellious tenants and the long-suffering landowner – how does this story end? We are offered two conclusions.

The first comes from those who are gathered around Jesus, listening to him. The horror pierces them to the heart. They cry out that the landowner will put the rebellious tenants to death – a miserable death – and will replace them with honest substitutes.

This is not the conclusion that Jesus endorses. What he says is very different. He reminds his listeners of a verse from the psalms: “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes.”

The rejected stone becomes the cornerstone on which everything else depends; how shocking it is to see this!

Those gathered around Jesus who said that the rebellious tenants deserved to die are advocates for exclusion and violence. The best way to handle murderous rebels is, in their view, to make them taste their own medicine. This attitude is ancient, popular, and leads absolutely nowhere.

If the landowner gives up on the tenants, claims they are not capable of anything but murder, and puts them to death – a miserable death – then it is they, the tenants, who win out in the end. They are dead, to be sure, but the landowner has adopted their methods, he has been converted to their murderous habits, and the cycle of violence rolls on.

Jesus offers a different way. He tells us that it is precisely the rejected stone that is necessary, and must be the foundation for all the rest.

The death and victory of Jesus is the prime example of this. Jesus is rejected, betrayed, and abused by those around him. But he becomes the cornerstone for a creation rebuilt from the ground up.

More recent examples show how it is the rejected stone that becomes central to what is built. This happens in a variety of ways.

Sometimes an influential figure deprived of power gains a new and deeper authority, and so becomes a cornerstone that inspires others and moves them to action.

During the Nazi occupation of Denmark, the Danish king, King Christian the Tenth, rode his horse daily through Copenhagen streets, surrounded by applauding crowds. He told the Germans that he would risk death to keep the swastika from flying over his castle, and they relented from displaying their flag there. These acts of defiance turned the king into the cornerstone of the remarkably successful Danish resistance.

A resistance movement featuring schoolboys, amateur saboteurs, and underground clergymen kept the Nazi killing machine off balance for years. The Germans wanted normalcy in Denmark, and the resistance movement worked through strikes and other actions to deny them that. A prominent indication of their success was how nearly all Danish Jews were transported to safety in neutral Sweden through the help of their fellow citizens.

Like walls that meet at a cornerstone, sometimes two oppressed groups achieve unity because they want to realize the same audacious vision.

The 1986 reelection of Ferdinand Marcos as president of the Philippines was tainted by widespread electoral fraud. Marital law was imposed. Marcos made personal loyalty to him the criterion for military promotions. As the People Power movement stood up to the regime, civilian protesters and military units overcame their fear of each another. Camps held by military rebels were protected by civilian crowds. According to one observer, the line of defense included “young people in their late teens, early twenties, with their whole lives stretched before them. … I saw one doctor who was beyond seventy. … I saw no one leave. No one yielded to fear.” Civilians and soldiers risked themselves for the once-rejected cornerstone of justice. Days later, Marcos went into exile.

Sometimes a prisoner grows strong in confinement, becomes a legend, and finally, no longer rejected, serves as the cornerstone for a new social order.

Nelson Mandela, for decades an inmate in a South African jail, emerged to be elected the first president of the new South Africa. He grew so influential as a prisoner that the Apartheid regime held secret meetings with him while he was still in confinement. Rebels, young and old, were held with him on Robben Island, which became a training ground for political leaders. Through many slow and painful steps, South Africa was reformed. A nonracial parliament was seated and chose Nelson Mandela as president. Sworn in on May 10, 1994, he vowed that “never, never, and never again shall it be that this beautiful land will again experience the oppression of one by another.” The former prisoner was now president. Once rejected, he was now the cornerstone.

We are more connected with everyone than we find it comfortable to admit.

Here is how Jesus puts it: the rejected stone becomes the cornerstone.

Here is how it is put by an Australian aboriginal activist named Lilla Watson: “If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”

How will you and I put this truth into practice, not simply in what we say, but in how we live?

We might start by recognizing that whomever we call an enemy comes to us bearing a gift. Each enemy comes to us bearing some broken, rejected part of ourselves. By accepting that enemy, we accept back that part of ourselves. By continuing to reject that enemy, we remain in a fragmented state inside. Acceptance of our enemy means we are changed and so is our enemy, for together both are propelled toward a new and unexpected creation.

The Book of Common Prayer contains a prayer entitled “For Our Enemies.” Let us offer it now:

“O God, the Father of all, whose Son commanded us to love our enemies: Lead them and us from prejudice to truth; deliver them and us from hatred, cruelty, and revenge; and in your good time enable us all to stand reconciled before you; through Jesus Christ our Lord.”

Written by the Rev. Charles Hoffacker
The Rev. Charles Hoffacker is an Episcopal priest and writer. He is the author of “A Matter of Life and Death: Preaching at Funerals” (Cowley Publications, 2002).