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April 7, 2015, 9:55 AM

Heart, Mind, Body, & Soul


Matthew 7:24-27                          Common English Bible
24 “Everybody who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise builder who built a house on bedrock. 25  The rain fell, the floods came, and the wind blew and beat against that house. It didn’t fall because it was firmly set on bedrock. 26  But everybody who hears these words of mine and doesn’t put them into practice will be like a fool who built a house on sand.27  The rain fell, the floods came, and the wind blew and beat against that house. It fell and was completely destroyed.”
 
Heart, Mind, Body, and Soul
 
The toe bone connected to the foot bone…the foot bone connected to the ankle bone…the ankle bone connected to the shin bone…the shin bone connected to the knee bone. And so on, and so forth. This is such a seemingly silly and simple song. Some know this song as the “Hip Bone Song,” and some as “Dem Bones.” Regardless, it is a fun song, easy to sing, and known by many, many people. The key word in the song is ‘connected.’ Everything is connected. Though the song has been coopted by the children’s music industry, it was originally an African American Spiritual, and much of African theology and philosophy is about the connectedness of life.
 
Everything within us is connected. We are a whole being—heart, mind, body and soul. When something happens in one part of us, all of our self is affected. When we are down with the flu, we are down in spirits as well. Under great stress we can experience headaches, develop ulcers. Anxiety produces an upset stomach and distracted thought. Grief wracks the entire body. Recovery from a traumatic injury leaves us disheartened, worried, and struggling with our faith. We are whole beings, exactly the way God created us. Note that Jesus commanded us to love the Lord our God with all our heart, all our mind, all our strength, all our soul.
 
The knee bone connected to the thigh bone…the thigh bone connected to the hip bone…the hip bone connected to the back bone. This song, as I said a moment ago, is an African American Spiritual—“Dem Dry Bones.” It begins with “Ezekiel connected dem dry bones.” The song is about Ezekiel’s vision from the book named after him, chapter 37—the vision of the Valley of Dry Bones. “Ezekiel connected dem dry bones, Ezekiel connected dem dry bones, Ezekiel in the Valley of Dry Bones, Now hear the word of the Lord.”
 
Now hear the word of the Lord. That is the central message of Jesus’ parable of the Two Builders-the Two Houses. “Everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice…” This parable is the ending note for the long teaching in Matthew’s gospel often referred to as the Sermon on the Mount. It begins with the wonderful Beatitudes: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed are the meek, blessed are the peacemakers.” It has memorable teachings: “You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world…you don’t hide a lamp under a bushel basket but put it on the stand and it brings light to the whole house.” In this great sermon Jesus proclaims he has come to fulfill the Law, not destroy it. He gives directions for alms giving, praying and fasting, and gifts to his disciples what we call “The Lord’s Prayer.” He instructs his followers not to worry, not to judge. He calls them to ask, to seek, to knock, and they will find. And he addresses our treasure, ‘for where our treasure is, there will our heart be also.’ Therefore, as he begins this final parable to culminate this great teaching, he states that everyone who hears ALL these things—the entire Sermon on the Mount—and puts them into practice is like a wise person who builds their house on the bedrock.
 
This image, this metaphor of building houses on solid foundations in not a new one. The Wisdom Literature of the Hebrew Scriptures—what we call Old Testament—uses this image many times; books like Ecclesiastes and Proverbs. The metaphor of building a house is used to refer to building your life—your community life. The listeners of this great sermon, disciples and crowd, would have made the connection between Jesus’ parable and the scriptures of their faith. The scriptures called God’s people together to build their lives, their entire community, on the Law of God—the Torah. By using this imagery in his parable, Jesus calls for his followers, for us, to build our lives together on hearing his words, his teachings, and putting them into practice—embracing them, embodying them, living them with all we are—heart, mind, body and soul.
 
Jesus proclaims just prior to starting this parable, “Not everyone who says to me ‘Lord, Lord,’ will get into the kingdom of heaven.” Jesus wants more than lip service. He points out that even those who ‘prophecy, expel demons, and perform deeds of power in Jesus’ name’ don’t cut it. Jesus wants more than going through the motions. Jesus wants us ‘all in.’ He calls us to build our lives on this foundation of hearing and doing—heart, mind, body and soul.
 
We are here this morning to worship and celebrate the One who went ‘all in’ for us. Jesus gave all of himself-heart, mind, body and soul—everything, to be with us, among us, to embrace our humanness, and restore our relationship, with God and one another. He seeks to pull us back from destructive paths, not just parts of us, all of us.
 
So where will we build our house together? Will we build it on hearing and doing? Will we build it on committing all that we are to living Jesus’ words and Jesus’ way? Will we commit all our heart, all our mind, all our body, all our soul? Or will we only give a part, which is really nothing at all…
 
because the toe bone connected to the foot bone…the foot bone connected to the ankle bone…the ankle bone connected to the shin bone…
 
The storms of life come. Water rage. Winds howl. They will beat against what we build.
 
Dem bones, Dem bones, Dem dry bones. Now hear (and do) the words of the Lord. Amen.



April 3, 2015, 8:55 AM

Attached (Maundy Thursday Meditation)


Luke 14:16-24 CEB
Jesus replied, “A certain man hosted a large dinner and invited many people.  When it was time for the dinner to begin, he sent his servant to tell the invited guests, ‘Come! The dinner is now ready.’  One by one, they all began to make excuses. The first one told him, ‘I bought a farm and must go and see it. Please excuse me.’  Another said, ‘I bought five teams of oxen, and I’m going to check on them. Please excuse me.’  Another said, ‘I just got married, so I can’t come.’  When he returned, the servant reported these excuses to his master. The master of the house became angry and said to his servant, ‘Go quickly to the city’s streets, the busy ones and the side streets, and bring the poor, crippled, blind, and lame.’  The servant said, ‘Master, your instructions have been followed and there is still room.’ The master said to the servant, ‘Go to the highways and back alleys and urge people to come in so that my house will be filled.  I tell you, not one of those who were invited will taste my dinner.’”
 
Attached
 
Holding up pieces of a broken chalice. I broke this chalice ten years ago, but I remember it like it was yesterday. I had been leading a multi-sensory worship service for the Wyoming Annual Conference. I had a large box of materials, and as I packed everything away at the end of the service, I wrapped the chalice in a piece of fabric and laid it top of the nearly full box. While walking across the dark parking lot I fumbled to get my car keys out of my pocket, and dropped them onto the pavement. Believing I was Wonder Woman, I determined I could pick up those dropped keys without putting down that full box. It happened as if in slow motion. The box tipped. The wrapped chalice began to roll, unwrapping itself as it gained momentum…and smash! It hit the pavement and shattered into these pieces. I think I cried a little.
 
I have been carrying this broken chalice with me ever since. It was a gift from Doug, and the first personal chalice I ever received. It is the cup of salvation and graced many a Holy Communion table. It was beautiful, it still is beautiful in its own way. I’m attached to it still, and probably always will be.
 
But that is what it means to be human, right? Attachment is part of our humanness. We assign meaning to things; pour memory and sentiment into them. Allow them to represent people and events and feelings. And we define ourselves by our larger attachments: family attachments—wife, mother, daughter, sister—work attachments, extracurricular activities, talents, hobbies, interests. These are all good things, even great things. They are part of the tapestry of our lives, the fabric of our being.
 
But there resides a danger in our attachments as well. We can become too attached. Our attachments can begin to own us, control us.  The root meaning of attachment from the Old English is ‘staked to,’ or ‘nailed to.’ What happens when our good attachments begin to consume us and take over our lives? It is not a comfortable question to contemplate. Perhaps that is why the Parable of the Great Banquet never appears in the regular Sunday lectionary.
 
We have been exploring the parables of Jesus throughout Lent and have seen how many of these parables have layers to explore and contemplate. There is one undeniable layer to our parable tonight, and it addresses our attachments. A wealthy person decides to host a lavish dinner, a feast, and invites all their peers—wealthy people all. The invitations are sent. The feast is prepared. Servants are sent forth to announce that ‘dinner is served.’ The excuses ensue.
 
The first can’t come as they have just made a significant investment, a large piece of property has been purchased. Excuses are made so that this investment may be attended to. The second can’t come because a huge (enormous) number of oxen have been purchased…ten oxen, five teams of two. This is an extraordinary number for first century Israel. The second can’t attend, there is work to do. And the last has just gotten married, and you know, family comes first. These are good things; the security of investments, fruitful work, starting a family. But these three are too busy, too attached to other things, to accept the invitation to the feast.
 
So, the feast planner invites those with little attachments. Those who will see such an invitation as the wonder it is. The feast planner invites the poor, the crippled, the blind, the lame, the transient, the refugee, the homeless—for who else is living in alleys and highways? For this isn’t just some lavish dinner, we know Jesus. This is the great feast of God’s realm, sung of throughout Isaiah. These first invited were so busy, so attached to other things, that they missed it.
 
Jesus tells this story at a lavish dinner, surrounded by wealthy guests. He has observed people entering the banquet, vying for the best seats. He has noticed that all invited will be able to return the favor, and continue this networking system. So he urges them to be a people who take the lowest seat, not the highest, and embrace a sense of humility. He calls for them to invite those who are not able to repay the favor and embrace true generosity. He invites them to help make this dinner they find themselves attending a glimpse of Isaiah’s feast, God’s kingdom.
 
How timely this parable is for where we find ourselves today; as individuals, as a community, as a culture. We have so many attachments and the vast majority of them are good things, great things. But we have so many attachments and they pull us in so many different directions. Our calendars seek to own us, our schedules demand our attention, our obligations consume us. What invitations to God’s feast have we missed? What kingdom moments have we passed by without noticing?
 
Here is the table, an appetizer of the Great Feast to come. Here is commonwealth living, kingdom living. Here, in this place, we have the opportunity to embrace humility as we dip our feet in the waters of the basin. Here, in this place, we come with our hands empty to receive abundant grace in the bread and the cup. Here we practice letting go of our attachments and witnessing God’s commonwealth in action, God’s kingdom realized right here, right now. Thanks be to God! Amen.



April 2, 2015, 1:14 PM

Those Sinning Sheep


Luke 15:1-7 CEB

All the tax collectors and sinners were gathering around Jesus to listen to him. The Pharisees and legal experts were grumbling, saying, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

Jesus told them this parable: “Suppose someone among you had one hundred sheep and lost one of them. Wouldn’t he leave the other ninety-nine in the pasture and search for the lost one until he finds it? And when he finds it, he is thrilled and places it on his shoulders. When he arrives home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Celebrate with me because I’ve found my lost sheep.’ In the same way, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who changes both heart and life than over ninety-nine righteous people who have no need to change their hearts and lives.

Those Sinning Sheep

As I have said on previous Sundays, I have been blown away by Amy-Jill Levine’s book, Short Stories by Jesus. Amy-Jill is a world-renowned Jewish biblical scholar who has dedicated herself to helping Christians better understand their Jewish roots, Jesus’ Jewish culture. She points out things I’ve never noticed before in all the years I have been reading and studying these beautiful stories. She asks questions that seem so obvious once she asks them. Even in this short parable of an owner and a lost sheep, she exposes things we often overlook.

For as long as I can remember, the “Parable of the Lost Sheep” has been, in my mind, a story about sinning and repenting, sinners being returned to the flock. The focus in on that lost sheep, and we even read the Prodigal Son Parable, back into the lost sheep story. The lost sheep becomes a runaway sheep…bad sheep. The problem with this interpretation, however, is that for Jesus’ first listeners—in the gospel of Luke—they haven’t heard the Prodigal Son story yet. It follows the lost sheep story and the lost coin story. The lost sheep story also appears in Matthew’s gospel, but the Prodigal Son and Lost Coin are absent. And in Matthew, the word to refer to the missing sheep would be better translated as ‘deceived,’ rather than lost. Different word, in the Greek, than Luke’s gospel.

So, let’s take a closer look at this little, very familiar parable. When we explored the “Workers in the Vineyard” parable a few weeks ago, we noted that titles on parables often restrict our viewing, make us focus on one particular aspect at the expense of others.  We saw in the “Workers” story that the main character was actually the owner and it was his behavior that revealed much of Jesus’ message. The same is true of the “Parable of the Lost Sheep.” The sheep are part of the story, certainly, but it is the shepherd we need to watch, his behavior is the focus.

It is important to note Jesus’ audience for this story, in the Luke version before us. He is hanging out with tax collectors—sinners. Tax collectors were the wealthy who gained their riches on the backs of their fellow citizens. They had neglected loving God and loving neighbor in favor of loving self. The other part of the audience are the religious leaders of the people. Pharisees, scribes, legal experts who are highly regarded and valued by the people—leaders, shepherds of the people. For Jesus this is a pretty privileged group. And the religious leaders are outraged with Jesus’ behavior, he has welcomed these sinners, these tax collectors, and has eaten with them. So Jesus tells them a story about a shepherd—a really wealthy one.

Suppose you had one hundred sheep and lost one, wouldn’t you abandon the ninety-nine on the mountainside and pursue that one? This shepherd has A LOT of sheep! This is a significant flock for first century Israel. And yet, despite the huge number of animals, this shepherd notices when just one goes missing! This shepherd has been paying close attention, counting even. The shepherd then leaves in reckless pursuit of this one, risking everything. You see, it is the shepherd’s job to keep the sheep together and safe. It is the shepherd’s responsibility to care for the sheep. When the lost one is finally found, the shepherd’s rejoicing is extreme and beautiful.

Here Jesus sits surrounded by these tax collectors and religious leaders—tax collectors who are sinners in the eyes of the leaders and lost sheep to Jesus—and Jesus offers a story about a shepherd, or what a shepherd is supposed to be. Jesus is asking, “Why do you only concern yourself with those already safely in the fold, with those in no need of repentance?” We, in the church, usually jump over that line…ninety-nine ‘in no need of repentance.’ Jesus is point out to the religious leaders—“Here is your work! Here are the ones you lost! These are the ones who have drifted from your care. These have been deceived by the world’s call.”

God is the Great Shepherd who recklessly pursues the lost, even leaving the throne of heaven to be with us in Jesus Christ. Are we not called to model our own lives after this example? Where do we spend the majority of our resources, of ourselves? Is it on internal ministries within the fold, within the faith community? Or is it outside our walls in the ‘wilds.’ Do we stay with the flock or do we recklessly journey up and down the countryside pursuing those with no fold to call home? What about those who have drifted from our care?

Today, at the edge of Holy Week, Jesus offers us a challenge. This parable isn’t about those sinning sheep. As Amy-Jill Levine says in her book, those sheep have not been ‘bleating blasphemies’ or ‘eating non-kosher grass.’ This parable stands before us and ask: “What kind of shepherd will we be? Will we go forth to recklessly pursue the lost or will we busy ourselves within the fold.” Thanks be to God. Amen.




March 27, 2015, 12:32 PM

A Man Had Two Sons


Luke 15:11-32
11 Jesus said, “A certain man had two sons. 12 The younger son said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the inheritance.’ Then the father divided his estate between them. 13 Soon afterward, the younger son gathered everything together and took a trip to a land far away. There, he wasted his wealth through extravagant living.
14 “When he had used up his resources, a severe food shortage arose in that country and he began to be in need. 15 He hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed pigs. 16 He longed to eat his fill from what the pigs ate, but no one gave him anything. 17 When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have more than enough food, but I’m starving to death! 18 I will get up and go to my father, and say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you.19  I no longer deserve to be called your son. Take me on as one of your hired hands.” ’ 20 So he got up and went to his father.
“While he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was moved with compassion. His father ran to him, hugged him, and kissed him. 21 Then his son said, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I no longer deserve to be called your son.’ 22 But the father said to his servants, ‘Quickly, bring out the best robe and put it on him! Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet! 23 Fetch the fattened calf and slaughter it. We must celebrate with feasting 24 because this son of mine was dead and has come back to life! He was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate.
25 “Now his older son was in the field. Coming in from the field, he approached the house and heard music and dancing. 26  He called one of the servants and asked what was going on. 27  The servant replied, ‘Your brother has arrived, and your father has slaughtered the fattened calf because he received his son back safe and sound.’ 28  Then the older son was furious and didn’t want to enter in, but his father came out and begged him. 29  He answered his father, ‘Look, I’ve served you all these years, and I never disobeyed your instruction. Yet you’ve never given me as much as a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. 30  But when this son of yours returned, after gobbling up your estate on prostitutes, you slaughtered the fattened calf for him.’ 31  Then his father said, ‘Son, you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. 32 But we had to celebrate and be glad because this brother of yours was dead and is alive. He was lost and is found.’”
 
A Man Had Two Sons…
 
If I say, “Larry, Mo, and Curley,” you immediately say…(Three Stooges).
And if I say, “Dynamic Duo?” (Batman and Robin)
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” (A Tale of Two Cities)
“Marsha, Marsha, Marsha” (The Brady Bunch)
“That’ll do pig. That’ll do.” (Babe)
“Hey…with thumbs up.” (Happy Days)
“Stay in the house, Carl!” (The Walking Dead)
“Rock, Paper, Scissors, Lizard, Spock” (The Big Bang Theory)
 
There is something about stories. Whether we experience them from books, television shows, or movies, stories touch us and connect us in some profound ways. They become part of our vocabulary, part of our memories, part of our lives. This has been true for humanity throughout our history. We are a narrative people.
 
Jesus’ listeners and followers had their own common stories, connecting narratives, that informed their vocabulary, their memories, their lives. First century Israel was still a largely oral culture. Few people could read and write. Stories were their entertainment. They were handed down from generation to generation, told around the village fires at night, at the Sabbath table. Their stories were played by the children in the marketplace. And these stories, the fabric of the lives of Jesus’ followers, were what we fondly call “bible stories.” Adam and Eve being cast out of the garden. Moses parting the Red Sea. Abraham and Sarah journeying to Egypt. Daniel facing down the lions in the den. Elijah battling 400 prophets of Baal. David and his sling shot standing firm before Goliath. These were the figures  of their imaginations. These were their common stories.
 
As Jesus shares these rich and beautiful parables over the course of his ministry, he not only used the images of everyday life—agriculture, family life, community life—to capture the imagination of his listeners and drive his points home. He also used their common stories. By invoking those narrative memories he could call on many stories at once and yet tell something new.  He could help the people rethink stories they had known all their lives.
 
A man had two sons. It seems such a simple beginning to the story, just sharing some facts. A man had two sons. We breeze right past it into the heart of the story, but not Jesus’ audience. A man had two sons. It is like Jesus proclaiming, “O Captain, my Captain.” Our minds go to the poem by Walt Whitman, to “Dead Poets Society” and the boys standing on their desks, to a host of sitcoms that have invoked those words and that image. Jesus begins, “A man had two sons,” and instantly stories begin popping into the brains of his listeners.
 
Our shared faith story begins with a man and two sons—Adam, with Cain and Abel. Cain is a herder. Abel is a farmer. Both offer to God the first of their harvest/herd. For whatever reason Abel’s  is accepted and Cain’s rejected.  In a rage, Cain murders his brother and is marked by God.
 
The father of three major world religions had two sons—Abraham with Ishmael and Isaac. Ishmael is firstborn of the slave woman, Hagar. Isaac, however, is the covenant child, the one promised by God to Abraham and Sarah. Sarah and Hagar are constantly at odds and pour this strife onto their sons.
 
That covenant child, Isaac, had two sons as well, twins. Esau born first with Jacob, ‘Heel-grabber,’ immediately following. Crafty Jacob tricks Esau out of his birthright and his blessing, and then flees for his life from a murderous brother, to another country.
 
A man had two sons…and that is only three examples. All these stories crowd into the listeners’ minds as Jesus utters those simple words, and their focus is immediately on that younger son—lost Abel, promised Isaac, crafty Jacob who later becomes father Israel. God does amazing things with those younger sons.
 
But as the story unfolds it reveals a strange family. The younger son grabs his inheritance, runs off, and squanders it all on loose living. He ends up destitute and alone. A father who lets his son run off with all that money and puts up no protest, and yet is eagerly waiting to welcome that son back home. The forgotten older sons who isn’t invited to his own brother’s celebration, and indignant refuses to come into the party. This father and two sons couldn’t possibly be the patriarchs of faith, the larger-than-life figures of such pivotal stories…and yet…
 
The first family was hardly functional. Abraham was so often silent in the face of the unfolding family drama. Isaac, Esau, and Jacob has a lot of issues. These families were complicated, human, and messy. But despite the messiness and broken relationships, the man seeks reconciliation and restoration with his two sons at all costs. It doesn’t matter if the younger is repentant, the father falls upon this child in joy with tears and kisses. When the man realizes the older son is angry outside he leaves the party and goes out to meet him where he is, offering comfort, and urging and pleading for restoration. This is about repairing relationships no matter what. This is about absolute reconciliation…and such reconciliation is transformative.
 
A man had two sons…Cain and Abel is not just about the first murder and the loss of one brother. Cain is marked by God, protected by God. Must both brothers be lost?
 
A man had two sons…Ishmael and Isaac, as Amy-Jill Levine says in her commentary, if either is sacrificed, both are. We see their children at odds today, at war today. But Ishmael and Isaac reconciled and came together to bury their father. Can their children find a way to reconcile as well? Esau and Jacob make amends at the River Jabbok after Jacob wrestles with God and is renamed Israel.
 
A man had two sons…a parent has two children. Families are complicated. Relationships are messy. Communities take work. The question is, like the man in this story, in all these stories, can we grab reconciliation moments when we glimpse them coming? Are we willing to diligently watch for those opportunities? Will we lay our own stuff aside and go out to meet the moment and the ones lost? Because if we are…”it could be a far, far better thing we do than we have ever done…”
 
A man had two sons.



March 19, 2015, 10:05 AM

Parables are Like Onions


Matthew 20:1-16
“The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. After he agreed with the workers to pay them a denarion,[a] he sent them into his vineyard.
“Then he went out around nine in the morning and saw others standing around the marketplace doing nothing. He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I’ll pay you whatever is right.’ And they went.
“Again around noon and then at three in the afternoon, he did the same thing.Around five in the afternoon he went and found others standing around, and he said to them, ‘Why are you just standing around here doing nothing all day long?’
“‘Because nobody has hired us,’ they replied.
“He responded, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’
“When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the workers and give them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and moving on finally to the first.’ When those who were hired at five in the afternoon came, each one received a denarion. 10 Now when those hired first came, they thought they would receive more. But each of them also received a denarion. 11 When they received it, they grumbled against the landowner,12 ‘These who were hired last worked one hour, and they received the same pay as we did even though we had to work the whole day in the hot sun.’
13 “But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I did you no wrong. Didn’t I agree to pay you a denarion? 14  Take what belongs to you and go. I want to give to this one who was hired last the same as I give to you. 15  Don’t I have the right to do what I want with what belongs to me? Or are you resentful because I’m generous?’ 16  So those who are last will be first. And those who are first will be last.”
 
Parables are like onions! Onions have layers, parables have layers.
 
Let’s see the clip where I borrowed this idea…(Shrek & Donkey on a quest).
 
Parables are like onions, not cake. They have many layers, one upon another upon another. And in peeling back those layers, sometimes it stings, makes our eyes water, causes the urge to turn away. Parables are like onions, not cake.
 
I didn’t realize how many layers parables could possibly have until I started peeling back layers with Amy-Jill Levine, through her newest book, Short Stories by Jesus. Amy-Jill is a world renowned Jewish Biblical scholar, much sought after for speaking engagements and educational seminars. She has dedicated herself to helping Christians better understand their own Jewish roots, and the culture and context into which Jesus comes and teaches, preaches, heals, and transforms. In her newest work, she seeks to help us understand how Jesus’ largely Jewish audience would have heard these radical stories, and through that understanding, to experience new “ah-ha” moments for ourselves, to feel those twists and turns. She helps us peel back new layers of understanding, even if it stings just a bit, and makes us want to turn away.
 
Today’s parable—the Workers in the Vineyard—already causes that reaction in some of us. This parable stomps all over our sense of fairness. We may not be too eager to peel back any layers. But if we don’t, there is a whole new depth of understanding regarding this ‘kingdom of heaven’ Jesus has come to proclaim.
 
There are two layers—two interpretations—of this parable that I have heard regularly. The first interpretation (layer) understands Jesus to be speaking about the coming future kingdom. When everyone is gathered around the “Great Heavenly Banquet” we will sit as equals, whether we have been followers of Jesus since infancy or came late to discipleship. All have an equal place at the table. This can be hard when we consider people who lived criminal lives and then repented. It is hard to picture a murderer sitting next to one of our saints, but overall this is a beautiful understanding and we can live with it.
 
The second layer I have experienced understands Jesus to be speaking of the community of faith. Whether we were baptized in our home church, or joined as an adult, we are equal within the community. This is harder to live out. When someone new arrives with new ideas and new ways of doing things, clashes can occur. There is a desire for the newcomer to conform to the current ways of doing things. But this interpretation is beautiful and valid as well, even if it is harder to live out.
 
But there are more layers to this onion, especially if we truly want to experience what Jesus is describing. When Jesus speaks of the kingdom of heaven, he means both the future coming kingdom AND the one we are to be living right here, right now. So this parable must also apply to the current lives of the listeners. And, Jesus loved to speak about economics. It was his second favorite topic, second only to talking about the kingdom of heaven. So when we have a parable that talks about both the kingdom of heaven and current economic situations…we need to peel the layers until we reach that economic core. So, perhaps with eyes watering a little, let’s peel.
 
First we have to peel away the title—Workers in the Vineyard. Jesus did not give titles to his stories and when we use a title it narrows our focus and our perception. Calling this story “Workers in the Vineyard” means we focus on the workers, and we identify with them, especially those first hired. So when we get to the stories conclusion, we are outraged right along with those hired first.
 
But if we peel away the title we have imposed, we begin to see that the main character in this story is the householder or landowner. He begins the story, he is the constant throughout the story, and he ends it. For Jesus’ first century listeners, any story that began with a vineyard and an owner instantly meant Israel and God.  The Hebrew Scriptures are rich with that metaphor for Israel’s relationship with God—Vineyard and Owner. Already the story is familiar and the people are drawn in.  And the opening scene is deeply familiar. All across grape country at harvest time, in every town and village, this scenario plays out. Representatives from the vineyards come to the town or village seeking harvesters. Day labors gather, ready to be hired. Each community had a standard “minimum wage.” Everything so far is happening normally—owner comes to marketplace, hires the laborers needed, the usual daily wage is agreed upon—a living wage, providing food for 2 to 4 days—and work begins.
 
But here is where the story starts to get strange. This householder, this landowner, keeps returning to the marketplace, over and over and over again—9 am, noon, 3 pm, 5 pm. Each time he finds day laborers who were not hired by other householders and sends them to his field. At 9 am he declares he will pay what is just or right, but no payment is mentioned for the other hires later in the day. We have no clue why this owner keeps returning to the marketplace for more workers. It is a mystery, a twist that leaves the listeners questioning. And by the way, though our English translations make it sound like those day labors were just milling about being lazy, the Greek simply states they were without work.
 
Finally the work day ends, it is time to pay the workers, and now the big surprise. As the paying of the employees unfolds the shock sets in, all are paid the same wage regardless of working hours. We can see this play out in our heads—the shock, the outrage, the outburst of one of the 6 am workers. “Wait a minute, we’ve worked all day in that hot sun! How can you pay us the same as those guys who just got here and only put in an hour?!?!”
 
But suddenly this householder, this landowner, reveals some of his motivation, as he responds to the outraged worker. “I have done nothing wrong to you. We agreed on a living wage for you this morning before you started working, and that is just what you received. Do you begrudge a living wage to these? Can I not be generous with these other members of our community?”
 
Here is an owner deeply concerned with his community and its people. Had he not returned again and again to the marketplace those workers would have had nothing at the end of the day—no money to buy food and life’s necessities. And he chose to make sure they had a living wage—enough to get buy. It wasn’t extravagant, but it was life-saving. These later hired will now not need to search desperately  elsewhere, perhaps even resorting to begging. The owner, by returning again and again to that marketplace, ensured income and work—life and dignity—to the day laborers and their families.
 
This layer of the story reminds me of a man I have had to pleasure to encounter over the last few years, Mr. Hamilton. Mr. Hamilton owns the Golden Shores Resort in Jamaica where our mission team stays while working at the school and clinic. It is a modest place by American standards, but clean, and safe, and well cared for. Mr. Hamilton cared deeply for his community. He hires locally, checks in regularly with his employees, asking after their families and friends. He invests in his employees, even sending some to the United States for further education, that they can bring back and share with the community. When it came time for First UMC to build the new school, he volunteered to be the ‘clerk of the works.’ He drove regularly out to that school, a 40 minute trip over horrible roads, to check on the work, speak to the contractor, check on supplies, ensure all was moving forward. All of this he did without any thought to payment. It was for his community. For the children who would one day be its adults and leaders. He sought to live the kingdom, right there, right in the moment.
 
Parables are like onions. Onions have layers. Parables have layers. May we always seek to dig deeper to hear the richness of Jesus’ word and the challenge to live the kingdom here and now.  Amen.

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