An Invitation, A Robe

Sunday Worship at Black Forest Community Church
Black Forest, CO
October 12, 2014
© Rev. Diane Kay Martin
An Invitation, A Robe
Matthew 22:1-14 (excerpts)
Once more Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son. He sent his servants to call those who had been invited to the banquet, but they would not come. … They made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business. … The king was enraged. … He said to his servants, ‘The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.’ They went out and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests. But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe, and he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?’ The man was speechless. The king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him and throw him out.’ For many are called, but few are chosen.”
Sermon Number One: “An Invitation.” A king has a wedding banquet for his son’s wedding, and he invites all of the dignitaries from miles around. When none of them come, he sends out the invitation to the people on the streets—“both good and bad”—and they come gladly.
Sermon Number Two: “A Robe.” The people from the streets all accept the king’s gift of a wedding robe—except one. That man stands there in his street clothes, casually eating caviar and drinking champagne, and when the king asks him why, he says nothing, so the king has him thrown out.
Sermon Number Three: (Untitled) Jesus throws in this confusing phrase at the end: “For many are called, but few are chosen.”
Which one would you like to hear? <<Wait for responses. ? >>
I wrote all three sermons, just to be prepared. (Not really!)
But let’s take a quick look at all three and see what can be learned from them and how they fit together. We have to assume Jesus knew what he was doing when he created this parable, right?
Picture it: Jesus looks out over the crowd and notices that most of the people there are peasants. They would never be invited to a grand wedding; many of them are not even allowed in the Temple because they’re considered unclean or they don’t have the right sacrifices to offer. So Jesus tells the first story, and he sees smiles spreading across many of their faces. The people in the crowd can relate to this story; in their minds, they are those guests who were gathered, “both good and bad,” from the streets of the town. They are those guests who literally received their invitations to the wedding that day—and left their jobs and their fields and their dirty laundry and their housework and their sick beds and their babies and put on their grandest attire (which probably wasn’t all that grand, considering the circumstances) and came.
The message is clear, to those standing by and to us: The invitation is open to everyone, regardless of differences. Regardless of differences in ability—today is, by the way, Access & Disabilities Awareness Sunday in churches worldwide. Regardless of differences in race, culture or sexual orientation—no matter how you feel about the Supreme Court’s action this week. Regardless of how we struggle with faith, long for answers, long for a closer walk with God—as in the two George Harrison songs our youth sang a few minutes ago: (from My Sweet Lord) “I really want to see you, I really want to know you, but it takes so long, my Lord”; and (from Give Me Love) “Give me hope, help me cope with this heavy load. Trying to touch and reach you with heart and soul. Please take hold of my hand, that I might understand you.” And from Eric Clapton’s Tears in Heaven: “I must be strong and carry on, ’cause I know I don’t belong here in heaven.” And the king says, “Yes, you do! Just come! Come to the wedding banquet! My son is getting married, and I want you to help me celebrate!”
Now picture this: Jesus notices some in the crowd who aren’t smiling. They’re the scribes, the Pharisees, the religious elite who have figured out by now that when Jesus talked about the dignitaries who refused to come to the wedding, he was talking about them. So they stand a little firmer, gaze a little steelier, and Jesus even hears one of them grumble under his breath, “What’s he talking about? We’re here, aren’t we? We came to his ‘peasants’ banquet,’ didn’t we?” And Jesus knows they’re getting a little hot under the collar, and they’re already trying to figure out how to make him stop. Permanently.
He knows they’re not humble. He knows they love standing apart—above—everyone else. He knows that if they were asked to put down their religious pride and truly worship on the level of the common folk—the people of the streets—they would recoil in disgust. Jesus knows the religious elite wear their robes and vestments as if their own righteousness were sufficient to gain them entry into the grand halls of God’s “wedding banquet.” He knows that, regardless of what they say, they don’t truly believe they need any help at all—from God or from anybody else.
So Jesus creates—on the spot—the next vignette. The guests are at the banquet. The king looks around and is pleased. His guests are wearing their white robes—his gift to each of them, just for accepting the invitation—kind of like the table favors we find at many wedding receptions today and are encouraged to keep as souvenirs of the event. But these guests wear their white robes particularly well. For these are the guests who were gathered, “both good and bad,” from the streets of the town.
For some of them, the “grandest attire” they put on when they received the invitation was probably stained or torn or didn’t fit properly; some of them probably stunk to high heaven; but the sweet-smelling beautiful white wedding robes covered all of that, putting everyone on the same standing with everyone else in attendance. The robes made them less self-conscious—less ashamed or less proud (whichever the case may have been)—and more able to focus on the joyous event of the day—the wedding!
These are the guests who willingly wore the robes they were offered, and then they fit in perfectly because they all looked—and smelled—wonderful.
Then Jesus turns our attention to the guy without a robe—the guy who’s casually standing at the caviar table, drinking champagne, and wearing his street clothes. His own robe. His own vestments. He hasn’t accepted the king’s gift and put on the robe of humility, the robe of equality, the robe of leveling the playing field. He won’t wear the robe of the king’s righteousness because he’s wearing the robe of his own self-righteousness and he thinks that’s all he needs. He has it all figured out, and he feels perfectly comfortable standing aloof and judging the other guests for what he assumes they are like under their white robes.
And Jesus says the man doesn’t say anything. Nothing at all. The king asks him, “Friend? Why aren’t you wearing a wedding robe?” and the man is silent. Speechless. Without words. So caught up in his religious pride that he sees no reason to defend himself. And the king has no choice but to have him escorted out before he ruins the party.
Sermon Number Three – (Untitled) – is Jesus’ commentary after his parable. He says, quite simply, “For many are called/invited, but few are chosen.” The “called/invited” part makes sense: it’s the moral of the story in Sermon Number One. Many are invited (or all are invited). But few are chosen? What is that?
This verse is one of those known as the “difficult texts” of Jesus’ teaching. Much hay has been made with this idiom, with the most hurtful interpretation (in my view) being that of Calvinism’s double predestination—that is, some are predestined (foreordained) by God to get to heaven, and others are predestined by God to go to hell. On the extreme end of this belief, a person may believe she or he is called, but may not, indeed, be chosen. And so you could live your whole life, faithful to God, and BLAM! you die, and you’re in hell-fire, and there’s nothing you could have done to prevent it. I asked a Predestinationist one time how this could be consistent with the nature of a loving God, and he said, “Well, God could send every last one of us to hell if he wanted to.” …
I did not find that to be a satisfactory answer. …
So great has been the debate over predestination, though, that it has split denominations; it has split churches. In the small town of Westby, Wisconsin—population around 1500—seven miles from where I grew up, there are two Lutheran churches, side by side, because 100 or so years ago, the church split over this very issue, so the detractors bought the property right next door and built a new church on it. That was not a satisfactory answer, either.
In the original context of this parable, though, we may find a more satisfactory answer. “Many are called, but few are chosen.” I went back to the original language and learned that the Greek word eklektos, that has been translated “chosen,” was, when this passage was written, more often used to mean “choice,” as in “a choice cut of beef.” Top-notch, the cream of the crop. And I can see Jesus now, leveling his gaze and speaking directly to his critics, but sweeping his arms widely, expansively, and saying, “Many are called,” (“The world is called!”) and then lowering his arms a bit, making a smaller sweeping gesture toward the smiling crowd and saying, “but few are the eklektos, the choice ones, top-notch, the cream of the crop—because few have chosen to come to the banquet and feast on my father’s love.”
The difference is subtle, but the implications are huge! It means God doesn’t “uncall” anyone. God doesn’t “unchoose” anyone! It means that by our choosing, we are chosen. By our choosing, we are the choice ones, top-notch, the cream of the crop. As we accept the invitation and put on the robe of humility, of respect, of equality, of God’s righteousness and not our own, we become God’s favorites. The gift is right there, before you. The playing field has been leveled. The same beautiful white robe has been offered to each one of us. Many—all—are called, and you are chosen! An invitation, a robe, a gift—for each and every one of us! Try that one on for size!
Let us pray.
Lord of the feast, you have prepared a table before all peoples and poured out life with such abundance that death cannot claim the triumph over your universe. Call us again to your banquet where we may receive your holy food
and, strengthened by what is honorable, just and pure, be transformed into a people of righteousness and peace. Amen.
Amen!

The House Where God Lives

Sunday Worship at Black Forest Community Church
Black Forest, CO
October 5, 2014
© Rev. Diane Kay Martin
The House Where God Lives
Exodus 40:1-4, 9
The Lord spoke to Moses, “On the first day of the first month you shall set up the tabernacle of the tent of meeting. You shall put in it the Ark of the Covenant, and you shall screen the ark with the curtain. You shall bring in the table, and arrange its setting; and you shall bring in the lampstand, and set up its lamps. … Then you shall take the anointing oil, and anoint the tabernacle and all that is in it, and consecrate it and all its furniture, so that it shall become holy.”
I Kings 8:22-23, 27-29
Then Solomon stood before the altar of the Lord in the presence of all the assembly of Israel, and spread out his hands to heaven. He said, “O Lord, God of Israel, there is no God like you in heaven above or on earth beneath, keeping covenant and steadfast love for your servants who walk before you with all their heart. … But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, much less this house that I have built! Regard your servant’s prayer and his plea, O Lord my God, that your eyes may be open night and day toward this house, the place of which you said, ‘My name shall be there.’”
2 Timothy 2:20-21
In a large house there are utensils not only of gold and silver but also of wood and clay, some for special use, some for ordinary. All who cleanse themselves of the things I have mentioned will become special utensils, dedicated and useful to the owner of the house, ready for every good work.
It is good for a church every now and then to revisit who it is and where it has come from. It is good for a church to occasionally take inventory and assess whether it is, indeed, “the house where God lives.” And the dedication of three new pieces of worship furniture which we did here today seems the perfect time for a church to do that introspection.
For our scripture readings today, I chose three passages—two from the Old Testament and one from the New—all about the furniture, the “utensils” of the place of worship, all about the prayers that were said over them, to bless them. Each scripture represents a different era in God’s ongoing work of “salvation history,” as theologians refer to it. In each era, God has a different type of dwelling place. And buried in the text about each dwelling place is an insight about the “kind” of house where God wants to live. Let’s look for those insights now.
In our first scripture reading, God lives in a tabernacle. Now, that’s a strange word—a word we don’t often encounter outside of this story. A tabernacle is, literally, a tent, a hut, a dwelling place, a resting place. God commanded Moses to build this sacred space for the Hebrew people as they traveled in the wilderness during their exodus—their 40 years of wandering in the wilderness after they were delivered from slavery in Egypt. The tabernacle was a tent—a very large tent, and in this case, a very large portable tent—built to God’s precise specifications, and it was the place where the people could go to meet God.
God wanted the tabernacle to be a holy place—a sacred space—someplace unique and special where individuals could go and know they had encountered the Divine One. So God commanded Moses to pray over the tabernacle and its furnishings and to anoint them so they would be holy. The Hebrew word for “anoint” here is mashah, a form of mashiah, a form of messiah, which means “anointed one” or one set apart. God wanted Moses to make the tabernacle and its furnishings, in a sense, a “messiah,” a place set apart, for the people so they could know God—so they could come apart from their daily troubles and meet the divine. And that is one thing God wants this house we call the church to be: God wants to live in a house where people can separate themselves from the noise of life and experience true holiness, find true purity.
And later, in our second scripture reading, God lives in a temple. God leaves the portable, dusty space of the tabernacle and gives Solomon the honor of building the temple, a more permanent structure, now that the Hebrew people have finished their wandering and have settled in the Promised Land. Solomon, like Moses before him, prays for the structure, and we have part of that prayer in today’s second scripture reading, as Solomon dedicates the temple as God’s second dwelling place. Some of you may know that God had originally instructed David—Solomon’s father—to build the temple—but then God changed God’s mind.
In 1 Chronicles 22:8, God says to David, “You have shed much blood and have fought many wars. You are not to build a house for my name, because you have shed much blood on the earth in my sight.” David was a man of war, and we could debate all day about whether those wars were necessary and whether God sanctioned those wars, but the bottom line was that God did not want a man of war to build his house. God wanted a man of peace to construct the temple. God’s house was to be “a house of prayer for all nations,” and to be that, it must be a place of peace. And so, that is another thing God wants this house we call the church to be: God wants to live in a house where people can leave their conflict behind, pray without fear, and find peace.
Our third scripture reading is drawn from the second letter of the Apostle Paul to his disciple (his student) Timothy. At this point, God’s house was not (for the followers of Christ) the tabernacle or the temple, but the church—the embodiment of a brand-new faith. Paul creates a metaphor for Timothy, comparing the members of a church to the “utensils” in a house. Verses 20 and 21 read: “In a large house there are utensils not only of gold and silver but also of wood and clay, some for special use, some for ordinary. All who cleanse themselves … will become special utensils, dedicated and useful to the owner of the house, ready for every good work.”
So, here, Paul is instructing Timothy to tell the people in the churches that every single one of them has a purpose and is useful to God. In the life of the church, every one of us has a calling. We are those special utensils, ready for every good work, well suited to some type of ministry, some purpose, in the house where God lives. It could be a ministry that’s shared by everyone in the church—an “ordinary” ministry, like singing the hymns with the congregation during worship, or giving in the offering, or greeting a newcomer—or it could be something more unique, like preaching a sermon, or leading the youth group, or repairing the furnace.
Each of our task is to find our own unique calling and act on it. And every time we look at God’s beautiful house—this one with its warm wood ceilings and beams and rafters and carvings—and every time we look at these lovely new furniture pieces that we have dedicated here today, we are to be reminded that this is a place set apart for experiencing the holy (like the tabernacle), for leaving our conflict behind and finding peace (like the temple), and for discovering our own purpose, our own unique calling (like the early church).
Jo Wasson found her own unique calling. She is well-known throughout the conference as being a strong advocate for justice issues and missions. Jo loves the United Church of Christ and has always been a strong voice for the wider church. I remember when I first arrived and Kimberly, who preceded Theresa as secretary, would get off the phone with Jo, a little bit frustrated because Jo was so insistent that the mission efforts of the month have a place in both the bulletin and the newsletter! Yes, Jo Wasson has always been intensely determined to give her causes a voice. We don’t know yet whether Jo Wasson will ever again be able to use that strong voice for justice and missions. But we are privileged to have her among us, as an example of how much difference one person can make.
On a lighter note, I saw the softer side of Jo yesterday. I saw her sense of humor. One of her nurses in the ICU encouraged me to try to get her to laugh—to express normal human emotions. That nurse, in fact, was a young, rather attractive male nurse with a charming island accent, and as soon as he left the room, I said to Jo, “Now, you’ve got a cute nurse there, and I don’t want you flirting with him too much! You need to get some rest!” Jo let out a big belly laugh, and that cute nurse, sitting outside Jo’s room with the door cracked open, probably wondered what that was all about!
Yes, Jo Wasson is a strong voice for justice and a legend in her own time. Likewise, we dedicated the two altar chairs and the side table today in memory of some equally strong voices who are no longer with us. Rev. Nick Natelli is also a legend, speaking peace and justice into every corner of the Christian life here in Black Forest. And Audeen Murrah, like her husband Dalton, gave decades to the work of La Foret, our UCC church camp, believing in camp ministry and the relationships it nurtures. Each of them found their unique purpose and fulfilled them in Christ’s service.
Come away and experience God’s purity. Leave your conflict behind; pray and find peace. Discover the task for which you are perfectly suited and find purpose. Let your experience of this house change the house where God truly wants to live— this house —your heart.
Amen!

Let Your Yes Be Yes

Sunday Worship at Black Forest Community Church
Black Forest, CO
September 28, 2014
© Rev. Diane Kay Martin
Let Your Yes Be Yes
Matthew 21:28-32
[Jesus asked the chief priests and the elders,] “What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ He answered, ‘I will not’; but later he changed his mind and went. The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘I go, sir’; but he did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.”
Jesus was a master debater. I don’t know how he pulled it off, but he managed to silence his major detractors, time and time again. The writers of the Gospels were probably delighted when he did this, scratching their heads and saying, “Now, how did he turn that back around on them like that? I’ve got to write that one down, because I could probably use that someday.” (Ever been in a relationship that left you scratching your head like that? ? )
The chief priests and the elders of the Temple often came to Jesus to ask him questions to test him—to try to outsmart him—but there is no outsmarting divine wisdom, is there? It’s that way in our lives too. Sometimes we just have to scratch our heads and say, “Wow, God, I don’t know how you turned that one around—or how you’re going to turn this one around—but you did—or you will—so I’m just going to take note and go with it.”
It takes a certain amount of humility to see it that way—to change your mind about an issue or a problem like that—and that is what Jesus was telling the religious leaders in today’s passage that they needed to do. It’s all about having the humility to change your mind. It’s all about putting down your pride and saying, “Okay, God. You got me. I used to see it that way, but now you’ve made me see it this way, and so I’m going to retool my thinking about this issue. I’m not going to fight divine wisdom anymore.”
Scholars recognize that this passage is about “changing your mind” because Matthew used the literary device of repetition. The phrase “change your mind” appears twice in it: first when Jesus tells the story about the son who said he wasn’t going to his father’s vineyard to work and then changed his mind and went, and second when Jesus rebukes the religious leaders for not changing their minds about John the Baptist and his message. And what was that message? What was John’s message? Simply, “Repent!” which, literally, in the Greek, means, “Change your heart! Turn around!”
Now, just imagine how infuriating it must have been to the religious leaders to have Jesus tell them that the prostitutes and the tax collectors—the most scorned groups of people in that culture—were closer to the kingdom of God than they were, just because the prostitutes and the tax collectors changed their minds and accepted John’s message of “Turn around! Humble yourself and change your heart.”
Now, there’s something I want us to see here. Jesus was telling the religious leaders that God was scorning them because they rejected John’s message. Not because they believed anything in particular about Jesus—who he was, why he was there—but because they rejected John’s message, the message of humility and repentance. So it’s less about what you believe—or what you say you believe; it’s more about what you do with the message? How you let it change your heart? Is that what Jesus was saying here? I think so.
In another part of the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus said, “Let your yes be yes and your no be no.” This sermon is titled “Let Your Yes Be Yes” because so many times, we as Christians say we have been changed by God, by our faith, but then, when it comes to humbling ourselves enough to let God change our minds and hearts about something, our Yes becomes No. I was talking with one of the instructors at my fitness studio the other day, and she was recalling several months last year when she worked for a small company whose owners were extremely rigid in their Christian faith—so much so that they often hatefully criticized people based on their political and religious views. My friend was often the target of this criticism, because she didn’t believe exactly the way they did. Her comment to me was, “Isn’t religion supposed to make you happy? Isn’t it supposed to make you a nicer person? Isn’t it supposed to teach you how to love? I never felt so hated in my life! I mean, I’m not out there killing babies; I’m doing my best to raise my daughter. But nothing I did was good enough, and it seemed like it made them feel better about themselves when they were judging me!” …
They said Yes to God, but once they had their party line figured out, they refused to let God speak to them about it. They refused to let God change their minds; their hearts grew hard; and their Yes, sadly, became a No. To them, my friend was as a prostitute or a tax collector—someone to be scorned and hated—and wouldn’t they be shocked to have Jesus tell them that because she tried to live by John’s message about being humble, she was in better standing than they were!
You may wonder why I very seldom preach about the cleansing blood of Jesus. This is one reason I don’t. This may be offensive to some of you, but please hear me out on this. As the early Christian church developed its theological views to set itself apart from the Jewish religion—to make itself unique—to make itself necessary—it forgot that Jesus was a Jew, and that his message was a very Jewish one. All those things Jesus taught about caring for the poor, not letting money be your god, loving everyone, treating others the way you know is right (the way an emotionally healthy person would want to be treated and spoken to), forgiving over and over and over again—those messages are very Jewish. And very important. And if all Jesus came to do was to die, to shed his innocent blood so we could be forgiven of our sins—then why did he even bother going around, healing the sick, preaching the good news of God’s love, and teaching the multitudes about a better way to live? If all Jesus came to do—as is the impression we might get from a lot of TV and radio preachers—was to die, then why didn’t he just throw himself up on the cross as soon as he was old enough to realize it, and just be done with it? He didn’t, because his message was important! Jesus’ teachings have healing, saving power! Jesus wanted us to hear God’s take on things so God could change our minds, soften our hearts! So God could make our Yes be a Yes of love and acceptance, and not a No of hate and judgment!
Yes, Jesus died on the cross and rose from the grave on that first Easter morning. But that wasn’t the only work he did. And it seems to me that if we gave the rest of the work Jesus did as much press as we give his final work, well, we would know a whole lot more about how to get along in this world without doing such damage to others along the way.
… But that’s just my take on it. It may not be yours. But I guess if you want to hear more about the blood of Jesus, you may have to listen to some other preachers, because I’m trying to balance the scales a little bit. And, you know, you can pray for me. Maybe God wants to change my mind about this. Or maybe not.
Letting your Yes be Yes means putting your faith in action. It means seeing an opportunity to minister God’s love and grace, and acting on it. We celebrate here today a beautiful example of just that. Have you read Lynn and Kay Stricklan’s newsletter about their non-profit organization Tutaweza (too-tuh-WAY-zuh)? It tells a beautiful story. Thirteen years ago, they made a trip to Tanzania with a group called Global Volunteers, and they met a man named Andrew who had a heart for fatherless children. Together, they created this small organization that would provide secondary school scholarships for these young people so they could get an education and lift themselves out of the cycle of poverty. Tutaweza, in Swahili, means confidence in the future, and that has been its gift to nearly five dozen Tanzanian young people since its inception. But they don’t just send money. Lynn also traveled to Tanzania last May to teach a three-week computer science class on tiny computers that were donated by various mission partners. They also conducted a book drive that provided 143 textbooks for partner schools. Currently, 13 Tanzanian students are attending boarding schools because of the work of this little miracle called Tutaweza. For those 13 students, Lynn and Kay’s Yes has been God’s Yes – for a brighter future.
How easy it would have been for Lynn and Kay to see the need and walk away, doing nothing. How easy it would have been for them to say, “Well, unless we know for sure that these kids are being raised in the Christian faith, just as we believe it, we’re not really sure we want to do anything for them.” … How easy it would have been for Lynn and Kay’s Yes to become a No when they faced the overwhelming layers of government forms and documents that were required just to set this up. But at some point, they let God change their minds about what they could do for these young people who live halfway around the world. They let their Yes be Yes, and this congregation has done the same, choosing Tutaweza as one of its mission emphases for the month of September. I encourage you to give as God leads you, toward this work.
And to find your own Yes—the Yes to which God is calling you. It could be halfway across the world, as the Stricklans’ is. It could be halfway across the country, maybe someplace like Back Bay Mission in Biloxi, Mississippi. It could be halfway across the state, someplace like La Puente Home in Alamosa that we learned about last Sunday. It could be halfway across the city, someplace like Springs Rescue Mission or Crosses for Losses. It could be halfway across your pew, someone who has been wounded emotionally or spiritually and who needs your loving words. It could be halfway across your living room, in a reconciliation with a partner, a parent, a child, a sibling. Or it could be halfway across your heart, allowing yourself to begin to love and forgive yourself in ways you may not have done in many years. Let your Yes be Yes, and let God change your mind. Amen!