Called to Participate

Inspired by Matthew 22:15-22

“Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.” That is a loaded phrase if there ever was one, especially these days we are living in now. And it’s a phrase that means different things to different people. Some hear that phrase and think of the separation of church and state. Aside from the fact that many Americans don’t really understand what the separation of church and state even means, that is not what Jesus is talking about here.

Others hear Jesus words and think of money, either in the form of taxes or tithing or both. And after all, money is the illustration that Jesus is using here so it’s easy to see why people would think this is about money. However, money is just the illustration that Jesus is using to teach a lesson. This really isn’t about money, no more than it’s about the separation of church and state.

So, what is it about? Well, it could be about a few different things. One path that many preachers will go down today is loyalty. There will be many a sermon about our divided loyalties. And I think they’d be right! That will make for many fine sermons, and it’s a path I’ll probably take some day when this Bible story comes around again. But not today. That’s just not where my head and heart was at this past week.

What struck me was how we always think of the things that we give to Caesar, and the things that we give to God, as always being different things. So, instead, today I’d like to explore those things that are the same. The things that we give to both Caesar and to God. But before we get there, we should be clear who we are talking about. In other words, who is Caesar to us?

It is not a president of the United States. I don’t think that is an accurate comparison. As much as presidents might like to think they have that much power, thankfully they do not. That’s why every president has not been able to do all the things they campaigned on, or as quickly as they would have liked. Why? Because of the checks and balances that are in place over each of branches of government, to ensure that no one branch has too much power.

Caesar was an emperor, and therefore had the kind of power that U.S. presidents could only dream of. So, to think of a U.S. president when we hear Jesus say “give to Caesar” is not quite accurate. I think the closest thing we can come to is to compare it to the entire U.S. government, all three branches together.

So, what if we heard it this way, give to the government what belongs to the government, and to God what belongs to God. At least for the purpose of this sermon, let’s work with that. Now I mentioned that we usually think those things are different, and we wouldn’t be wrong. There are things that we give to one and not the other, or at least shouldn’t. For instance, worship. I think we can all agree that we should worship God, but not our country. However, I do think we can easily slip into the worship of country and could have easily wrote a sermon on that but not today. And just to be fair, I also think that we can easily slip into worshiping worship rather than God at church, but again, we won’t go there today.

Our spiritual well-being might be another thing that we give to God, but probably would not give to our government. I think most of us would agree that our spiritual well-being is the responsibility of religion and family, not the government. So, there are various things we would give one and not the other. But as I sat at my kitchen table and thought about this, I could name way more things that we give to both than things that we only give to one or the other.

Love—I love God and I love my country. Respect—I respect God and I respect my government, keeping in mind of course that respect is earned. Loyalty, both God and government ask for our loyalty, meaning we try to refrain from being blasphemous and treasonous. Money—I give money to God and to the government.

And as the list went on and on, I was more and more fascinated that so much of what we give to one, we also give to the other. And then I came across one that really stopped me dead in my tracks. Participation. Both God and our government, ask for, and expect, our participation. Think of it this way, without our participation, the church dies. Without our participation, our government dies. And when I say dies, I don’t necessarily mean ceases to exist, nor even, ceases to function.

Death of either could mean, that it ceases to function well—or that it ceases to function for the good of all people. And my friends, that kind of death, is a long, slow, death. It happens without us even knowing it. And usually by the time we realize that it’s happening, it’s already too late. I’ve been there, and let me tell you, it’s ugly.

This time, when I heard Jesus say, “Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God” I heard Jesus calling us to participate in both. I did not hear Jesus pitting one against the other! So what does that look like? What does it look like to participate in our government? Well, mentioned taxes. But that’s not really a choice is it? Well, I guess I could decide to not pay my taxes but that wouldn’t end well for me would it? How about voting? That’s a choice. We are not threatened with legal action to vote the way we are to pay our taxes. But voting is easy! I mean, is that really how we are called to participate in our government? For me, that’s the absolute, very least we can do.

There are so many other ways that we can participate, that I know many of you  are already doing: call or write a politician; attend a rally; protest; use social media to spread positive messages of change; attend a city council meeting; speak up for those who have a less of a voice; stand up for those who cannot stand for themselves; be creative! There are so many ways we can participate in the active work of our government. And being critical of our government is participating. Holding our government accountable is participating. Because no person or body of people should have power go unchecked. However you want to participate is great as long as we are participating, otherwise death is inevitable.

Now, how can we answer the call to participate at church? Like taxes, it’s not enough to just throw money in the offering plate…but please don’t stop doing that! Our treasurer’s heart skips a beat every time I say things like that! And like voting, it’s not enough to just show up at the annual congregational meetings. But regular participation, in a variety of ways, is what we are called to: Sunday worship; attending Bible studies, serving the community like at the Gathering Inn or the annual Christmas dinner, helping with the children or youth, just to name a few opportunities. Do you want the church to do more? Well make it happen! Or at the very least, inspire others to help make it happen! Maybe it’ll work. Maybe it won’t. But I can guarantee you this, complaining and griping about it will not inspire anyone to do anything new around here.

However we participate is great as long as we are participating—it’s the difference between surviving and thriving—because surviving is just dying slower. And is that our calling? No, especially when we remember that we are ultimately not here for our sakes, but for the sake of the world—always for the sake of the world. And the world needs better from us than just surviving.

The good news in all of this, the gospel in all of this, is, one that none of this has anything to do with our salvation, that’s already taken care of! And two, when God calls us to participate, God does not call us to participate alone. Rather, God calls us to participate with God, in the renewing, reforming, and healing of the world. God calls us to be co-participators. When you hear Jesus say give to God what belongs to God, Jesus is saying come, come participate with me, come, work with me. And when Jesus promises to work with you, Jesus will deliver on that campaign promise. Thanks be to God. Amen.


It Happened On Our Watch

Inspired by Matthew 21:33-46

At the house that I grew up in, we had a grapevine in the backyard. We brought it from my Grandpa’s house in Colorado one year after visiting him when I was very young. We planted it on the side of the house and it grew very fast. We took care of it every year, pruning it, and watering it and using fertilizer. My dad even installed a cable that stretched the entire length of the fence that it grew near so that the vine would have something to hold on to as it grew each year.

Every year we’d say, I think this is the year. This is the year that we get those sweet juicy grapes that Grandpa gets every year. But that year never came. Oh it produced grapes every year, tons of em! But sour! Make your eyes shrivel! But that didn’t stop us from caring for that darned grapevine, year in and year out, always thinking, this is gonna be the year.

The parable that Jesus tells in our Gospel reading for today occurs in a vineyard. It’s a common setting for stories in the Bible, as you may have noticed, as it is also the setting for our story from Isaiah, a very similar story to the one that Jesus tells. However, there is a fundamental difference between the two. In Isaiah, the vineyard is what is under scrutiny. The vineyard is what is deemed as faulty and under judgement. However, in Jesus’ story that he tells, it’s not the vineyard that’s faulty. It’s the cultivators, the caretakers, the tenants that are renting the vineyard, that are under judgement. But before we even go there let’s take a look at the vineyard herself because Jesus gives us a few details to consider.

First, Jesus tells us, “There was a landowner who planted a vineyard.” This tells us two things, this vineyard is owned by someone, and that someone planted it. So right from the word go, this landowner is personally involved. Next he says that “he put a fence around it.” Why would someone put a fence around a vineyard? To protect it, from animals, people, from getting trampled on.

Next Jesus tells us that he “dug a winepress in it.” Now, mind you, he just planted this vineyard, and there was no guarantee it would yield good fruit, why would he install a winepress so soon? Because the landowner had confidence in his vineyard. There was no question in his mind about whether or not he would need that winepress. He had hope.

Next he builds a tower. And what’s the tower for? Not to enjoy amazing countryside vistas. It was to keep watch over the vineyard. Not only was he hopeful in its success, he planned for it to be watched over, even if not by himself. This vineyard was planted with a lot of forethought and planning. It was planned with protection, and hope, and continued care—which sounds an awful lot like love.

And lastly, he rents it out to some tenant farmers to cultivate the fruit that he is so sure he will enjoy. So, that’s the what, how, and why of the vineyard. Question is, who is the vineyard? And I say that with caution because we don’t want to over-allegorize this parable or any parable for that matter. Sometimes a parable is just a parable. Not everything has to represent something else. But here’s why I bring this up.

I think the Church too easily assumes that the vineyard is us. Especially after reading the Isaiah version where the fault lies with the vineyard. No, that can’t be us, but then in Jesus’ version, where the guilt lies with the cultivators, then yeah, we must be the vineyard right? I don’t think so. I think that’s just our own ego and pride that assumes that. No, we are not the vineyard. The whole world is the vineyard. The whole world is the place that God has planted, planned for, and set up systems of protection, and produce, and care for. And so, as part of the world, we are part of the vineyard, but we are not the whole vineyard.

So who are the cultivators then? That’s us too! However, we are both called to be cultivators and called to be cultivated as well. But it’s the part about being called to be cultivators that Jesus is honing in on in this particular parable. And though the story does not go well for the cultivators in Jesus’ parable, that does not have to be the way our story goes.

Think of this as Jesus way of saying, don’t be like these cultivators, be better than this. Think of it as Matthew’s way of saying; don’t be like the chief priests and Pharisees, you can do better than that! Which leaves us with the most important question, if we are called to be cultivators in the vineyard that is God’s world, then what are we called to cultivate? What is the fruit that God has called us to cultivate in others?

Well, ask yourself this, what have others cultivated in you? What good fruit have your family, friends, church family, cultivated in you over the years? Kindness? The will to love the unlovable? Care for the poor? Care for those who are less privileged than you? A desire to feed the hungry? Clothe the naked? Visit the sick? Care for the mentally ill? Welcome the stranger? The courage to place others before yourself? Are not these the things that we are called to cultivate in others? But before we can cultivate any of those things in others, before we can pass on the things that have been cultivated in us, we first have to acknowledge who and where the vineyard is.

Because if we only see the vineyard is us, as the church, then this world is never going to get any better, this world is going to continue to struggle, the gap between the rich and poor will continue to widen, the wage gap between men and women will not narrow, race based hate and violence will not go away, the LGBTQ community will not feel welcome here, and people will continue to wreak havoc on innocent lives as happened in Las Vegas on Sunday. Pastor, how do get from cultivating the vineyard to a mass shooting in Las Vegas? Because Stephen Paddock was in our vineyard! That happened on our watch! As we sat in the tower that God built for us to watch over the vineyard that God has placed us in!

I led the Bible study for our high school youth on Tuesday. We are going through the major stories of the Bible and that night we took a look at the story of Cain and Abel, the first murder in the Bible. We had a great discussion, they are so much wiser than I was at that age, and much more compassionate. They did not talk about how horrible Cain’s crime was. They did not ask if he was going to hell for that. They wanted to know about his life.

They wanted to know about his childhood. They noticed that in one verse he was born and the next verse he was a farmer. And so they wondered, what had he gone through in his life that made him choose to take his brother’s life? They did not judge him, all they could muster was compassion for him. If our youth are any indication of what the future holds for us, then there truly is reason to hope.

The problem with the tenant farmers, the cultivators in the parable, was that they were cultivating for themselves, as if the vineyard belonged to them. It did not. It does not. We are called to be cultivators of good fruit in God’s vineyard that we have been placed in. We are called to care for the vineyard as if it was our own, remembering that it is not. Like my grapevine growing up, fruit will come no matter what. Will it be sweet or sour is the question.

The kind of fruit that we cultivate is based on how well we have tended the vineyard. Should we feel directly responsible for a mass shooting that occurred 600 miles away? I don’t know if I’m saying that. I honestly don’t know if I’m not saying that either. But I do know this, asking why we are responsible for the shooting in Las Vegas is the wrong question to be asking.

Stephen Paddock was one of our own, in God’s vineyard that we are called to tend. And the next Stephen Paddock will be one of our own. And there will be a next one. Trouble is, we don’t know who the next one will be. Will we wait until the next one is in our backyard before we claim some degree of responsibility? Or might we take a more proactive stance? We may not be able to predict who the next shooter may be.

But what we can do is double our cultivating efforts, double down on our call to be cultivators of good fruit in the vineyard that God has placed us. And more importantly, recognize that wherever we are: work, school, the grocery store, the gas station, a meeting, wherever we are, we are in the vineyard. And we are called to tend it well, because God never gives up on the vineyard. Thanks be to God. Amen.



Inspired by Matthew 21:23-32

When I was growing up, you just did what you were told. Saying no, when asked to do something, especially by a parent, was not an option. We were too scared to say no! I wasn’t physically abused as a child or anything but I knew enough to not test it! Although, I was a big baby. All my dad had to do was give me that look, you know the dad look, and I’d run off crying to my room! I have no idea why I was scared to death of him. But I was, and maybe still am, just a little, and so I never thought to say no to him or my mom. Telling them that I didn’t want to do whatever it was that they were telling me to do, was just not an option. And I’m not sure that was all that healthy for our relationship.

My own daughters and I have a very different kind of relationship than what I had with my parents. They talk to me in ways that I know my parents would think is disrespectful. My kids are quick to let me know how they feel about whatever it is I’m asking them to do. You should see my parents when we go to visit them each summer. I swear they acquire this temporary nervous tic as they see me parent very differently than they did and to their credit, they usually don’t say anything. And maybe that’s because my kids are turning out even better than I did. It’s hard to argue with those kinds of results. And I know they’re afraid of me as much as any kid is afraid of a parent. But I guarantee you they are not as afraid of me as I am, I mean, as I was, of my dad!

Our Gospel reading for today begins with Jesus getting into a little bit of a spat with some Jewish leaders, centering around authority. What kind of authority does Jesus have and where does it come from? That’s what they wanted to know. Well, that and they want to trick him into saying something illegal. He ends up answering their question with a question, an annoying habit of his. And he flat out tells them no, I won’t tell you where my authority comes from. Despite sounding a bit childish, if you read between the lines, he does answer their question, just not directly. And they weren’t dumb, they knew that. But before they could even respond, he tells them this short parable about a father and his two sons.

He tells both of them to go and work in the vineyard. The first one says no. And every time I read this I always expect the father to throw the kid out on the street. Or at least give him a good biblical backhand across the mouth. That’s the way I would have told it, thankfully I am not the messiah. Because instead, the father seems to ignore the response and the son ends up doing what the father asked anyway. Now the second son, this is one of those kids that is probably spoiled because he puts on a good show and is seemingly respectful and obedient, but ends up not doing what he was told in spite of the fact that he said he would. “Yes sir” was his response when told to go work in the vineyard with his brother. But his “yes sir” wasn’t worth a whole lot in the end.

At its heart, this parable is about hypocrisy. Jesus was making a point to the Jewish leaders, that he was just arguing with, about how their actions were not lining up with their words. Now, I could stand up here and give you a sermon about not being hypocrites—using phrases like: walk the walk, or practice what you preach, or actions speak louder than words. But we already know that right? We all know that being a bunch of hypocrites is bad! And at the end of the day we’re all going to go home as hypocrites anyway right, no matter what I say up here? Because…human. So I want to take a different approach and see how we land.

I want to know why the first son said no. And what motivated him to obey in the end? The story doesn’t say does it? Well, that doesn’t mean we can’t have fun speculating! I think there are a couple reasons he may have said no. One, because he didn’t want to! He didn’t feel like working that day. Maybe it was as simple as that. It was a knee-jerk response that he regretted as it was coming out of his mouth. Or, maybe there was more intentionality to it.

Maybe, he wanted his father to know just how much he didn’t want to work in the vineyard that day. And maybe he intended to do it all along but in that small act of defiance he was trying to communicate something to his father. And I don’t know what I love more, the fact that this son was comfortable enough to be so bold with his father, or that his father simply took it in stride. I think that speaks volumes about their relationship.

So why did he obey anyway, in spite of his little act of defiance? Well, I think there are a few possibilities here too. One might be, fear and self-preservation. Maybe he would have ended up getting that biblical backhand across the mouth if he tried to return home after not doing what he was told. Maybe he would have gotten kicked to the curb! Or two, maybe he obeyed out of respect. Maybe he realized he had too much respect for his father to not to as he was told.

Or maybe it was guilt, it’s a powerful motivator. Churches are experts at that one! Here’s another option. He did it out of a sense of duty. I like this one the best, maybe because I can relate to it. I’ve mentioned before that my own dad instilled a strong sense of duty in me. And I think somewhere along the way, the church has lost this aspect of our faith.

Sometimes, as my dad would say, you just gotta do what your told, whether you like it or not. Period. I try to instill this in my own girls. Because as we adults know, it never ends does it! Right now for them it’s school and homework and teachers they don’t like. But before they know it, it’s gonna be a job they don’t care for or a boss they can’t stand. And at the end of the day you still gotta just do what your told to do. I treat my journey of faith the same way.

I don’t always feel like coming to church on Sunday morning! Yeah, I said it. Sometimes my alarm goes off on Sunday morning and I just want to roll over and stay home. I don’t always want to be kind to others, and sometimes I’m not but that for another sermon. Being rude back to rude people would feel so good, so satisfying. I don’t always feel like studying the Bible. I don’t always feel like praying.

Why do I do these things anyway? No, it’s not to get a paycheck. I’m not sharing this with you as your pastor but as a fellow baptized child of God. Trust me, I’ve always had these issues, long before I was a pastor. Now, some days I can convince myself with some very logical reasons about why I should just put on my big boy pants and do what I know I should do.

Reasons like, it’ll be good for me, or people are depending on me, or I’ve got to be a good example, and the like. And then there are those other days, when I do these things anyway, out of a raw sense of duty and commitment. Not because I want to, or because I feel like it, but because I’ve been instructed to do these things of faith. And thanks to my dad, I know how to follow orders. And so I do them.

And here’s what I love most about this whole aspect of our faith journeys. We can be as open and honest with God as we want. God can handle it. If I as a dad can choose my own battles wisely, how much more can our God? We can tell God we don’t want to do what God is asking! Think of how many Bible characters did just that! We can tell God things like, “Oh shut up Lord, I know, I know, I hear you.” Or, “I’m going, I’m going. Get off my back!” God can take it. God invites it. God doesn’t want you to hide those feelings! God wants you to lean into them. Especially because, loving others, even when you don’t feel like loving them, is the deepest, most holy kind of love there is. Thanks be to God. Amen.