Monday, September 25, 2017

Sermon: "Offensive Grace"

Intro to Jonah 3:10-4:11 and Matthew 20:1-16

The lectionary this week pairs together two texts from our Bible that many of us find troublesome and hard to understand.
One is from the Old Testament and the other is from the New Testament.

The first is the story of Jonah.
This is the proverbial “Big Fish Story” in which the prophet Jonah is commanded by God to go and warn the evil people of Nineveh that they are headed for certain destruction unless they repent from their violent ways -  and Jonah, who has a deep hatred for Nineveh and thinks its unfair of God to give them a chance to escape death, disobeys God and runs away and ends up being swallowed by a giant fish.

The second reading, from the Gospel of Matthew, is Jesus’ parable of the disgruntled laborers – who’ve worked a full day in a vineyard and end up receiving the same pay as those who’ve worked only a half a day, and those who’ve worked for only an hour.

Both of these texts challenge our understanding of the way our world works and don’t sit well with us because they violate our sense of fairness.   
Why should those who’ve committed obviously inhumane and evil acts be allowed to escape punishment? And why should those who’ve labored for only an hour be rewarded the same as those who’ve labored all day?

These texts undermine not only our sense of human justice – but also our sense of divine justice – our belief that the evil will be punished, and the good will be rewarded -  on a scale that is proportionate to the level of their deeds – good or bad.

It’s worth noting that once a year, the Book of Jonah is read in Jewish worship services - on Yom Kippur, the day Jews set aside to atone for their sins - which happens to be this Saturday, Sept 29th. 
It isn’t often that Jews and Christians share worship readings and are literally on the same page during the same week, but this year it happened to work out that way.
The Book of Jonah is a reminder that no one is beyond God’s reach – that no matter how far we wander – or try to run – God’s grace enfolds us all equally. 
And Jesus’ parable of the laborers who are all paid the same wage by a generous landowner, reminds us of the same. 

The Rev. Maureen R. Frescott
The Congregational Church of Amherst, UCC
September 24, 2017 – Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Jonah 3:10-4:11; Matthew 20:1-16

“Offensive Grace”

At one of the recent white supremacist rallies that have been held across our country, a man who identified himself as a Christian held up a professionally made sign that said “Attention!! Hell Fire Awaits!!” 
- and listed on the sign were all the groups that he believed should expect to feel the heat of God’s judgment and wrath. 

The list began with the usual roll call of sinners - atheists, adulterers, murderers, idolaters, liars, and thieves.
Also making the list were drunks, pot smokers, party animals, sissies, and rebellious women.
Then there were the heretical believers, like Catholics, Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, Mormons, and Jehovah’s Witnesses.
And oddly, the list also included “Rock and Roll Freaks, Gangsta Rappers, Sports Nuts, and Country Music Lovers.”
Apparently the maker of this sign is not a fan of the country classic,
“Drop Kick Me Jesus through the Goalposts of Life.”

It's worth noting that this list of those doomed to roast in the fires of Hell also included “racists” and “fake Christians,” which shows that the man holding the sign either appreciates, or lacks, a sense of irony, depending on how you look at it.

We may laugh at the self-appointed prophets who stand on street corners or pound on pulpits calling out by name all those who have made God’s naughty list, but there are likely many of us here who have a naughty list of our own. Myself included.

We may not go as far as to wish hellfire and eternal torture upon those on our list, and some of us may not believe that a literal hell exists, but we still want there to be some divinely ordained system of separating the wheat from the chaff - the people who do good from the people who commit acts of evil–with the latter being those who willingly and intentionally harm others and fail to show any remorse afterward.

Our list may contain sex offenders, child abusers, terrorists, mass murderers, those who commit horrendous acts of genocide, torture, and extreme violence that cause us to shake our heads and wonder how we could be created by the same loving God.

The prophet Jonah likely carried a list like this in his pocket.
He wanted nothing to do with God’s plan to redeem the people of Nineveh.
Nineveh was the capitol of the Assyrian Empire - the people responsible for the annihilation of Israel’s northern kingdom.
A later prophet, Nahum, called Nineveh the “city of bloodshed, where horsemen charging, flashing swords and glittering spears,” left “piles of dead, heaps of corpses, dead bodies without end.” (Nah 3:1-3)
The last thing Jonah wanted was for these butchers of men, women, and children alike to seemingly “repent” for their sins under the threat of punishment and escape the promised destruction by God.

The Ninevites had murdered Jonah’s people, possibly laying swords to the throats of members of his own family.
Yet here was God asking him to play a part in their redemption.

The Bible gives us this fantastical story of Jonah, who runs from God, sails off to sea, only to be tossed overboard in a storm by sailors who’ve figured out that he is the cause of their calamity. He’s then swallowed whole by a big fish – that we interpret to be a whale, and spends three days in its stomach contemplating his disobedience.

Once Jonah is heaved out of the belly of the whale and is deposited safely on shore, he does what God told him to do. He goes to the city of Nineveh – and he warns them of their impending destruction.

But then, what Jonah feared all along would happen does happen.
Nineveh repents, God spares the city, and Jonah sits under a tree and pouts.

God asks Jonah, “Why are you so angry?”
And Jonah shouts at God, “Because you did exactly what I thought you would do. Because you are a merciful and loving God –
And you offered grace where I wanted you to offer justice.”

Grace is one of those religious words that we struggle to grasp the true meaning of.
We sing about Amazing Grace and are forever grateful that God offers it to us – even if we count ourselves among the wretches who have made mistakes in life and feel we are unworthy of receiving it.

But when it comes to imagining our enemies or those who’ve hurt us,
as ALSO being worthy recipients of God’s grace, we shut our hymnals –
and struggle to embrace this idea of a God who loves and forgives Jonah and the Ninevites, equally.
A God who loves and forgives US - and the terrorists who lay swords to people’s throats in our time, equally.

New Testament professor, Matthew Skinner, calls this kind of grace,
“offensive grace” because it offends our idea of justice and fairness.
It calls us to embrace a theology that is so wide open that we may wonder why we bother putting so much effort into being kind, compassionate, and forgiving people - when someone can spend their life committing acts of evil only to repent on their deathbed and become an equal recipient of God’s grace.

We’re so driven by this idea that we will reap what we sow and we will get what we deserve when we stand before God that the idea that God’s grace will somehow balance the scales in the end seems inherently unfair.

It’s this struggle to understand God’s grace that colors our interpretation of Jesus’ parable of the hired laborers who receive equal pay for less than equal work.
I think if we took a poll, this may be one of the least favorite and most difficult to understand of Jesus’ parables.
(How many of you would say this is true for you?)

On the surface, this story that Jesus tells his disciples seems exceedingly unfair.
Why should those who do only an hour’s worth of work be paid the same amount as those who have done a full day’s worth of work?

It’s likely many of us can recall someone we’ve encountered in our working lives who made a career out of doing as little as possible to get by.
I worked retail for many years before I went to seminary, and I once had a manager who always managed to disappear whenever we needed him to solve a problem or speak to an unhappy customer. 
He walked around all day with a coffee cup and a clipboard and if we did manage to find him – usually hiding in a backroom somewhere – he’d look at the clipboard and mutter something about being too busy to deal with the situation - then he’d tell us to solve the problem or handle the customer ourselves.

It’s that internal ‘fairness meter’ within us that causes us to cringe whenever someone who does less work than we do receives equal or greater compensation than we do.

Which is why this parable of the hired laborers bugs us so much.

There are ways of seeing this as a parable about justice in a world where worth is based on economic status – where those who don’t have the opportunity to work a full day for a full day’s pay – due to high levels of unemployment, discrimination, or downsizing  - or are unable to work because of disability, illness, or age - should still be valued as equal members of our society and not seen as less than deserving because they haven’t worked or don’t have the opportunity to work as hard as others have.

But when we overlay our real world expectations of fairness and economic justice on this parable it can trip us up – we get lost in how the parable might translate to our human systems of work and reward, and we miss the very first thing that Jesus says when he tells his disciples this parable.
He begins by saying, “The Kingdom of God is like…”

Meaning the world that God created - and is creating around us – looks very different from the world we live in now.
In the Kingdom of God we all have equal value and are equally deserving of the true rewards of life - God’s love and grace.
It doesn’t matter how much work we do – or how long we labor in the field – we all receive an equal amount of love and grace from the owner of the field.
Not because we’ve earned it, but because the owner is extravagantly generous.

This is what makes God’s grace so amazing.
Not that it’s offered to people like us who screw up on occasion – or who screw up on many occasions - but still try our best to orient ourselves towards love and light.

What makes God’s grace so amazing is that it’s offered equally to those who spend their lives in a very dark place, living and acting out of pain and fear, and hurting so many in the process – often in horrific ways.

This grace may seem offensive to us, because we question why it does not have to be earned by these people in particular, even when we understand that God’s grace can never be earned because is always given freely. 

Let’s be clear here, we’re not talking about “cheap grace" - a theological designation that some of you may be familiar with.
German Theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer defined cheap grace as grace that is expected to be given freely without the need for remorse or repentance.
Cheap Grace is the kind of grace we seek when we ask for forgiveness not because our heart has changed, but because we’re trying to manipulate others into thinking we’ve changed so we can avoid consequences in this world and keep on living as we always have.

But God, of course, knows what is in our hearts.
And given the smallest spark of a desire to change – the tiniest awareness that we’ve caused pain to others and we need to seek healing – that’s the moment that the light seeps in through the cracks and we become aware that God’s grace is all around us, and always has been.

It’s important to note that the act of showing remorse or changing our ways does not EARN us God’s grace. It’s not a work for payment transaction.
Grace is always there for the taking, flowing around us and through us like water flowing around the fish in the ocean – like the air moving in and out of our lungs.
That’s why we say God’s grace is given freely to all.
We’re all swimming in it.
Regardless of how long it takes us to realize it.  

But it takes a spark of love – a lessening of the fear that grips our hearts – to open our eyes to the grace that flows all around us…and through us.

We mustn’t neglect the role we play in offering this grace to each other.

As Lutheran pastor, Nadia Bolz-Weber, writes:

It is next to impossible in isolation to manufacture the beautiful, radical grace that flows from the heart of  God to God’s broken and blessed humanity.
As human beings, there are many things we can create for ourselves: entertainment, stories, pain, toothpaste, maybe even positive self-talk. But it is difficult to create this thing that frees us from the bondage of self. We cannot create for ourselves God’s word of grace.
We must tell it to each other.    (Accidental Saints. The Crown Publishing Group.)

We must tell it to each other - because we need each other.
We need each other to offer grace when it takes little effort to do so.
When it means not jumping to a conclusion about someone’s intention,
or assuming a slight or disrespect has taken place when it has not,
or reading our own fears into someone else’s words or actions.

We need to offer each other grace even when it takes great effort to do so.
When we feel as if we’ve been wronged.
When we feel offended or hurt.
When we feel as if the other has done little to deserve it.

God’s grace is truly amazing.
Because even when we try and fail to offer grace to each other.
God’s grace still finds its way to us. 
Even when we haven’t earned it.

Thanks be to God, and Amen. 

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Sermon: "Picking Cherries"

The Rev. Maureen R. Frescott
The Congregational Church of Amherst, UCC
September 3, 2017 – Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Romans 12:9-21

“Picking Cherries”

Something happened to me the other day that has likely happened to you as well if you rely on computers and online resources to stay connected to the world.   
I got angry at someone on the internet. 

I was scrolling through my Facebook feed looking at pictures from my friends’ vacation trips, reading the latest news about the devastating destruction of Hurricane Harvey,
and watching cat videos to take my mind off all the political finger pointing and pontificating that dominates much of our media these days,
when I came across a comment someone had made on a friend’s facebook post that try as I may I could not ignore.

You may have heard it said if you’re looking to ruin your day and lose all faith in the inherent goodness of humanity, just read the comments that people make on the internet.

Politics, religion, and sports seem to generate the most contentious and convicted discussions,  but regardless of the subject,
inevitably some cantankerous soul will manage to slip in an ill-informed or inflammatory comment that ignites an argument amongst strangers and sucks the joy right out of your day.

The kind of comment that gets under your skin and has you immediately composing a lengthy rebuttal in your head –
because when someone is WRONG on the internet, God knows it’s our job to set them straight.

The reality is, when someone says something online or on TV that we disagree with, turning off the computer or the television and walking away is usually the most effective response –
because doing so keeps us from jumping into a fray that only serves to waste time and energy and rarely ends well for anyone. 

Cognitive studies show that very few people change their minds when presented with an argument that contradicts their worldview, no matter how well-crafted, well-intentioned, or well-supported the rebuttal may be.

Which is why, after spending way too much time composing the perfect response to a stranger’s obviously ill-informed online comment, I hit the DELETE button, instead of hitting SEND.  

And after I read the scripture text for today I was glad that I did.

Paul’s letter to the Romans lays out what we call the Marks of Christianity -
A description of what it looks like to live as Jesus did in the world –
to really live it, from the center of our being.

Love one another.
Hold onto what is good.
Return no evil for evil.
Pray for those who persecute you.
Support the weak.
Strengthen the fainthearted. 
Help the suffering.
Extend hospitality to strangers.
Rejoice in hope.
Live peaceably with all.

Now, it needs to be said that Paul is setting the bar REALLY high here.
There are times when even the most devout and strong spirited among us struggle to live up to this grand and lofty list of ideals.

We know from her private letters that even Mother Teresa had dark periods where she found it difficult to hold on to what is good and rejoice in hope.

I would argue that we ALL get tripped up by the very first item on Paul’s list.  
Love one another.

Paul is of course quoting Jesus here and we know he was not talking about loving just our neighbor.
Or loving just the people we agree with. Or just the people who love us back.
But rather we are also to LOVE our enemies.
LOVE the people who hate us, the people who wish to cause us harm.
The people who stand for everything that we’re against and who wish to tear down everything that we stand for.

This kind of all encompassing love seems to perpetually hover just beyond our grasp.  But we’re called to reach for it all the same.

The rest of Paul’s list is equally daunting.
Return no evil for evil.

If we truly lived this out we would have a world where there is no war,  
no capitol punishment, no retaliatory violence of any kind.
Our very human understanding of justice would be turned upside down.

Support the weak.
Help the suffering.
Extend hospitality to strangers.

We may willingly throw all our good-hearted energy into supporting the weak and helping the suffering, but extending hospitality to strangers –
we often allow ourselves some wiggle room on that one –
it depends on where the stranger is from - and how they got here –
and the potential threat they may pose to those we love.

Pray for those who persecute you.

I admit that this is one that I struggle with.

I wonder if it applies to women who are in abusive relationships,
or people oppressed by a tyrannical dictator, 
or anyone who is powerless and exploited by the powerful.

And while Paul was referring to outside persecution experienced by those early followers of Jesus, I wonder if it applies when our fellow Christians are the ones doing the persecuting. 

You may have seen the statement that was released this week that was signed by over 150 conservative Christian pastors, theologians, and organizational leaders.

It’s called the “Nashville Statement” as most of the signers are members of the Southern Baptist Convention, which has its headquarters in Nashville, TN.
The 14-point doctrinal manifesto focuses on human sexuality and God’s will for creation, and states unequivocally that God created only two genders, male and female, which are fully realized at birth and have different roles in the human family, that sexual expression is limited to marriage which is to be between one man and one woman, and anyone who lives outside these constructs or supports those who live outside these constructs is at odds with God’s will and the Christian faith, and is unsanctioned by the Grace of Christ.

Imagine being a gay or transgendered teen and hearing this preached from the pulpit on Sunday morning.
Pray for those who persecute you, indeed.

After reading the Nashville Statement my first thought about the people who signed it was admittedly not very prayerful.
Rather I had the same feeling of righteous anger and sadness that I felt when I read the comment that I mentioned earlier, on my friend’s facebook page.

It was made by a woman who questioned the faith of Christians like me - and most of you - who supposedly defy God’s will by supporting gay marriage, transgender rights, divorce, and the ordination of women.

She accused us - her fellow Christians - of cherry picking scripture and the teachings of the Church, leaving behind what we don’t agree with or what doesn’t fit in with current cultural trends.

What provoked me to want to respond to this stranger’s comment is her conviction that one side in particular is guilty of cherry picking religious teachings, tradition, or scripture.
When the reality is, we ALL do it.   
Because it’s impossible not to.

Very few Christians, or Jews for that matter, adhere to every law and restriction found in Leviticus, Deuteronomy,  and other parts of the Hebrew scriptures, in particular the restrictions about not wearing clothing made of mixed fibers, not eating shellfish, and not touching the skin of a dead pig.
If we did, people who wear yoga pants, or enjoy a good Maine lobster, or play football for the New England Patriots would all be guilty of heresy.

And very few of us adhere to every teaching of the New Testament as well – where the followers of Jesus are told to sell all their possessions and keep a communal bank that all can draw from,
where owning human slaves is still acceptable as long as they’re treated well,
and where Paul instructs the faithful to refrain from marrying if possible, because marriage only serves as a distraction from the preparation for the return of Christ and the building of the Kingdom of God.

When it comes to living our lives according to biblical standards we’re all cherry pickers.    
Paul’s list of the "Marks of Christianity" is proof of that.

Every single one of us manages to miss the mark on multiple items on the list, repeatedly, and perpetually.
And I believe the God who created us and knows our limitations intimately would be cruel to expect us do otherwise.

It’s hard to fathom that a God who created a universe as big and as beautiful and as diverse as ours would place such binary restrictions on our ability to express who we are and who we love, and use those restrictions to place those who don’t fit into one box or the other outside the embrace of God’s Grace.

I may be picking cherries, but I choose to believe in the God of the Beatitudes who blessed the poor and the meek, the God of Jesus’ parables who spoke through a Good Samaritan and many, many persistent women,
the God that Paul describes in his letter to the Romans.

This God who when expressed through Jesus taught us to love our enemies, welcome the stranger, and pray for those who persecute us, who is forever challenging us to grow into a kinder, more loving, and more merciful versions of ourselves.  

This God who knows that our hearts and minds contain a complex and interwoven bundle of our genetic programming, our lived experiences, our prejudices and fears, and the learned belief that we are somehow not worthy of the love and that God offers us unconditionally.

I try to remember this when I encounter someone who has difficulty opening their imagination to a God who created the diversity we see in our world and loves each of us just as we are –
and therefore they cling to rules and manifestos and build boxes that we’re all supposed to fit into –
and they gather up the cherries that they’ve so carefully picked that give them a taste of this God who brings them comfort through structure and security - this God of judgment and wrath,
while swatting at the hands of those who prefer the fruit that has the sweet taste of a God of unconditional love and grace.

As a Christian, I love even those who accuse me of dishonoring the will of God.
I love them because at some time in their life they must have felt unloved.
I hold onto what is good in them, because we all have good within us.
I return no evil for evil.
I pray for them even though they persecute me and those I love.
I offer them support, strength, and help, because like all human beings they’ve lived through times of weakness, faintheartedness, and suffering.
I extend hospitality to them even though we are strangers and have yet to hear each other’s story.
I rejoice in hope that they might one day see and celebrate all the diverse colors of God’s rainbow.
And I will live peaceably with them even if they struggle to live peaceably with me.  

In The Message, Eugene Peterson's contemporary translation of the Bible, Paul lays it out like this:
"Love from the center of who you are…discover beauty in everyone."

Those two lines are at the heart of what it means to be a Christian,
because loving from the center of who we are
and finding beauty in every single one of God's children,
leads us to be generous and hospitable,
forgiving and peaceful,
humble and kind,
and full of grace.