Tuesday, August 15, 2023

Romans 10: Everybody's In

Hello, again. As I said at the beginning of worship, it’s good to be back.

A few things before we begin our study of Romans 10 today. First, I have to admit to playing a rather cruel joke on Ron Poisel and Alec Brohnson - your supply pastors and my fill-ins while I was away on sabbatical. Because I wanted some continuity this summer in the preaching texts, plus to make things a little easier for Kylie while I was away, I made the choice to focus on the book of Romans. Well, I made the choice for them.

You see, Romans is considered one of the most challenging of Paul’s letters to figure out. It’s a theologically complex and very dense writing. Everyone struggles with it. So, I promise, there will not be a quiz at the end of the summer. And the truth is that I am getting a little payback because I, too, will be preaching in it for the next 4 weeks.

A second thing I want to say is that I can guarantee that some of my experiences on sabbatical will likely find their way into my preaching and conversation over these next few weeks. It was a wonderful experience. A time of rest and renewal of relationships for me. A time of exploration and travel. And I’m still processing some of it. But, expect to hear a little more about it. And, if I haven’t said it enough, thank you for allowing me the time away. I was more exhausted than I knew.

Then, lastly, I want to talk briefly about our understanding of Romans. Since the early church, we have digested this letter as Paul’s treatise on faith and justification and salvation. Since the time of the Reformation, we - especially we Lutherans - have understood it to hold the core message of justification by faith. It has become an understanding that more and more pulls verse out of their context to highlight the reality of sin and the necessity to confess Christ for one’s own personal salvation. One of the dangers of this is that it makes salvation all about the individual. And one’s personal relationship with Christ as a personal Lord and Savior.

Over the past 50 years, the understanding of Paul’s writing has changed. It’s called a “new” perspective on Paul. If considering a “new” understanding makes you a little uncomfortable, know that this began with the writings of Krister Stendahl - a Swedish Lutheran theologian who, it was a change in understanding that began with the writings of Krister Stendahl - a Swedish Lutheran theologian, who pointed out that Paul - a Jew - did not view his life as one of conflicted torment with a troubled conscience. Stendahl argued that “justification by faith” was not the heart and soul of Paul’s theology, but that only used this idea when circumstances arose to argue that both Jews and Gentiles stand on equal footing before God. Other theologians picked this up and ran with it - and it has changed the entire culture of the study of Paul’s writings. Because Paul’s writings have primarily to do with community and how Christ-followers are to live in community.

Now that’s a very long introduction to our reading today, which comes from the heart of Romans.

Moses writes about the righteousness that comes from the Law: The person who does these things will live by them. But the righteousness that comes from faith talks like this: Don’t say in your heart, “Who will go up into heaven?” (that is, to bring Christ down) or “Who will go down into the region below?” (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead). But what does it say? The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart (that is, the message of faith that we preach). Because if you confess with your mouth “Jesus is Lord” and in your heart you have faith that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. Trusting with the heart leads to righteousness, and confessing with the mouth leads to salvation. The scripture says, All who have faith in him won’t be put to shame. There is no distinction between Jew and Greek, because the same Lord is Lord of all, who gives richly to all who call on him. All who call on the Lord’s name will be saved.

So how can they call on someone they don’t have faith in? And how can they have faith in someone they haven’t heard of? And how can they hear without a preacher? And how can they preach unless they are sent? As it is written, How beautiful are the feet of those who announce the good news. (Romans 10:5-15 CEB)

One of the best times I had on sabbatical was on July 4th. I was able to spend time in Texas with my gathered immediate family - including my son, brother and sister-in-law, nieces, and my new grand-nephew - the first grandchild for my brother and his wife. And, yes, it was hot! But we were on a lake - so it was tolerable.

It was the first time in over 15 years that we had all been together. For my son and his cousins, it was a time of getting to know each other all over again as adults, each with their joys and struggles. For me, it was just good to be with family - and to experience each family member in their unique personalities. 

There was a twinge of sadness, though. First, my niece’s husband, Coddie, wasn’t there. He died suddenly this past May of a heart attack. Then second, my nephew, Alex, also wasn’t there. He has been estranged from our family for several years. Although he has reconnected with his dad - my brother - he hasn’t yet come back into the family fold. So, there’s a little nick in my heart because of that.

Maybe you have something like that in your family. Maybe there’s someone who is estranged from the rest of your family. Maybe you’re the one who is estranged. I think this is more common than we know.

And this is really what Paul is writing about in this chapter and the surrounding ones, chapters 9 through 11 in Romans. He is expressing and working through his heartbreak over the Jewish people - HIS people. Wondering how it’s possible that Israel, God’s chosen people, have been given the promises in scripture and the covenant, yet are sitting on the sidelines while the Gentiles are flocking to Jesus as the Messiah. He writes at the beginning of chapter 9: I have great sadness and constant pain in my heart. I wish I could be cursed - cut off from Christ - if it helped my brothers and sisters, who are my flesh-and-blood relatives.

The resurrection of Christ was, for Paul, key. It is the beginning of God’s cosmic re-creation and reconciliation of humanity with God’s very self. Note that it is Christ’s resurrection - and not his death on the cross - that is key for Paul. Because, you see, anyone can die, even die on a cross. But, it is only Christ who was resurrected by God, which proves God’s faithfulness. That God keeps God’s word. God says what God will do.

At the very beginning of Romans, Paul writes that the gospel was “promised beforehand in the scriptures. Throughout the letter, Paul quotes from the Hebrew scriptures to show God’s hand - to show what God intended to do. It began with the Jewish people. 

Yet, the most important principle of ancient biblical interpretation is this: what God has done in the present determines the meaning of what God said in the past. So, Paul’s conclusion is that all of scripture points to Christ as the Messiah. And that God’s ultimate solution to the problem of sin and the separation of humanity from God was Jesus.

But what about the Jews? That part, for Paul, is so hard to figure out. It’s the question he’s struggling with here. The early church was made up of the Jewish disciples. But as it has grown, more and more Gentiles - and not Jews - are flocking to Christ. Paul struggles with this. He is a Jews. The Jews are Paul’s peeps.

But they are largely uninterested in the idea that Jesus is the Messiah. So the early movement of Jesus-followers is full of Gentiles (in other words everyone else who is not Jewish). Paul is arguing and advocating that the Gentiles are to be included without requiring them to follow Jewish law or custom (like circumcision or keeping the Sabbath, even though these have been commanded in scriptures). So, if the Jews then aren’t joining up with this new movement, then this new movement is no longer only Jewish. And that creates, at least, 3 problems.

First, God. How can God be faithful to God’s own people if they aren’t enjoying the benefits of God’s great and final act of salvation in Christ? But, Paul argues that God is faith. And that God will keep God’s promises.

Second problem. On the ground. What are Gentiles to make of Jews? And vice versa? In Rome, Jews are returning after having been kicked out of the city 50 years earlier. There are Christian Jews returning to the community. People are having to learn how to live together. Or wondering if they even should. It’s like it’s a church potluck and half of the group won’t show up because Patty isn’t bringing her deviled eggs. Who gets to control things? Gentiles? Jews? What actions count as faithfulness and obedience to God? This is the question. What does faithfulness to God look like if the Gentiles aren’t required to follow the same scripture requirements?

Third. What are we to make of non-believing Jews? How do we understand their rejection of Jesus as Messiah? What is their future?

For Paul, it’s a work of navigation, balancing the promises of God to Israel with the reality that the Jewish people have largely not accepted Jesus as Messiah while, at the same time, numerous Gentiles have. For us, too, it matters. Because the Jewish people are God’s chosen people - that hasn’t changed because God is faithful to them. So, to reject the Jews as part of the family is to reject Israel’s God. Our God.

The bottom line is that everyone is in. Humanity was created to bear God’s image - to show the whole created order what God is like. And if God’s plan of salvation isn’t to restore all of humanity, then God’s got a big problem. 

By the end of Romans, as we’ll learn, it’s not clear that Paul has everything all figured out. But, ultimately, he comes to a place of trust. Trusting that it is the resurrected Christ - and not obeying the commandments - that the law actually points us to. 

And that we are to be the bearers of that good news. Good news that transcends all boundaries, all divisions, all borders - everything that we, as broken human beings, like to put in its way. “Neither Greek, nor Jew. Neither male, nor female. Neither heterosexual or transexual. Neither documented, nor undocumented. Neither slave, nor free. 

This good news is about life. About the life that Christ’s resurrection - and not his death - points us to. About - together - experiencing the fullness of God. A God who, as Elijah experienced, comes not to us in the wind, or the earthquake, or even the fire. But in the most unexpected way. In the sound of sheer silence, through which God whispers to us: Y’all are mine. Y’all are enough. I choose y’all. I love y’all.

May we be the messengers of this good news.

Preached Sunday, August 13, 2023, at Grace & Glory, Prospect, with Third, Louisville.
11th Sunday after Pentecost
Readings: 1 Kings 19:9-18; Romans 10:5-15

Sunday, June 11, 2023

Sabbatical 2023: Orvieto, the Miracle at Bolsena, and the Feast of Corpus Christi

Everything over these past two weeks in Orvieto has been leading to this day, June 10th, when the entire Orvietani community celebrates the Feast of Corpus Christi (Domini). They don't celebrate it, though, like anyone else. Because it was right here, in this small, enchanting village where this feast originated. It all started with the Miracle at Bolsena.

Before I jump to the story of the miracle, a little about Bolsena. When Rome defeated the Etruscans here in 264 BCE, when it was known as Velzna, the Romans "exiled" all of the residents to an area called Volsinii Nova, 21 kilometers (13 miles) away. This became the town of Bolsena. 

In 1263, a German priest - Peter of Prague - stopped at Bolsena while he was on a pilgrimage to Rome. He is described as being a pious priest, but was struggling with believing that Christ as actually present in the consecrated Host (or bread) of Holy Communion. This is a Roman Catholic theological belief - transubstantiation - that teaches that at the time the priest consecrates the bread and the wine with the words Jesus spoke at the Last Supper ("This is my body...This is my blood."), the elements of communion are changed into the actual body and blood of Christ. 

(As an aside, the words "hocus pocus" are believed to be a perversion of this blessing from the Latin Catholic mass, Hoc est corpus meum, or "This is my body." But back to the story and to Father Peter!!)

Tapestry of Peter of Prague consecrating the Host

While he was celebrating mass in the church in Bolsena, named for the martyr St. Christina, he had barely spoken these words of consecration when blood started to drip from the consecrated Host and trickle on his hands and then onto the altar and the corporal. [The corporal is a square of white linen cloth onto which the containers for wine (chalice) and bread (paten) are placed during celebration of the mass.] Peter was immediately confused by this. At first, he tried to hide the blood. But, then, he interrupted the Mass and asked to be taken to Orvieto, where Pope Urban IV was residing. 

The Pope listened to his account, absolved Peter of any potential wrongdoing, then sent representatives to investigate. When he received the results of the investigation, the Pope ordered that the Host and the linen cloth bearing the bloodstains be brought to Orvieto. These relics were placed in the cathedral, in a special reliquary, and to this day - on this day - are brought out and reverently exhibited in the cathedral and then during a massive procession that winds through the streets of Orvieto. 

Exactly one year after the miracle, in August 1264, Pope Urban IV instituted the Feast of Corpus Christi (or Corpus Domini, as it's also called). After today's celebration, these relics will be returned to the Chapel of the Miracle in the duomo at Orvieto. The altar where all of this happened is still preserved at St. Christina Church in Bolsena. 

This is THE major festival each year in Orvieto. It's not only a significant religious day, celebrated with a special mass using the Aquinas liturgy that is broadcast on speakers throughout the village, but one that involves the entire community. Volunteers dress in beautiful medieval costume, carrying colorful banners that represent the four districts, or quarters, of Orvieto: Corsica, Serancia, Olmo and Santa Maria della Stella. Children, women and men are dressed as peasants, carrying their wares for sale. Representatives of the medieval guilds also dress in costume, holding aloft the many banners representing the different guilds of the time - artists, olive oil makers, carpenters, and farmers, to name just a few. Volunteers dress as members of the Knights Templar and the Swiss Guard, along with others dressed in ancient military garb, carry their jousting lances and represent the defenders of the church, the government, and the people. 

Dignitaries from the Comune de Orvieto (City of Orvieto) and from communities across Umbria dress in their official garb and walk in procession. The municipal band marches and plays melodies from the ancient liturgy written for this feast day by Dr. Thomas Aquinas. There are a series of ancient tapestries carried that tell the story of the Miracle at Bolsena. It is a spectacular sight - the ultimate Renaissance festival!!

All of this, though, is overshadowed by the relic - the cloth - as it is carried by priests, accompanied by the bishop and the many other priests, nuns and seminarians who process throughout the streets of this medieval hill town and are greeted by its residents with cheers and flowers along the way.

There is nothing quite like being in Orvieto on THIS day - the day remembering the Miracle at Bolsena and reminding us under our own slightly different Lutheran theology, that each week, as we participate in the mystery of Holy Communion, somehow Christ's body and blood are in, with and under the bread and wine, and God is truly with us.  

Happy Feast Day of Corpus Christi!!

Friday, June 2, 2023

Sabbatical 2023: Republic Day in Orvieto

Today - June 2nd - is Republic Day (Festa della Repubblica) in Italy. It's a day that recalls the post-World War 2 referendum in 1946, in which the citizenry of the kingdom of Italy chose to be a republic over a monarchy. To understand this more fully, one needs to go back in history a bit to the medieval period and the rise of the city-states. 

These were many different independent and political entities that arose after the collapse of Rome and the descent of Germanic "barbarians" into northern Italy. Orvieto was also invaded and came under control of the Longobard duchy. In 774 CE, the area was liberated and Orvieto became a province of the Papal State. This began a long era of great wealth, beauty and expansion. Orvieto became one of several modern, functional, democratic city-states (communes) with a well organized political system and urban structure. (These are the basis for our modern-day democracy in the U. S.) Because of a civil war in Rome during this time, Pope Urban IV lived in Orvieto. His residency led to the construction of a pontifical palace in the city, as well as, the commissioning of the construction of the duomo to be built beside his palace. In this medieval period each major square in the city represented an institution - Piazza Duomo represented religious power; Piazza del Popolo, the power of the people, and Piazza della Repubblica, the power of the polis (political power). These city squares still exist today. 

Orvieto's prosperity lasted until 1348, when the plague and fighting between the noble families (especially the Monaldeschi and Fileppeschi families) put an end this time of expansion. However, the city still found economic prosperity, thanks to its close connection to and popularity with the papacy - it was viewed as a quiet and safe place to stay not far from Rome. Orvieto continued as an important papal province until 1860, when Italy was unified and it became part of the Kingdom of Italy, a constitutional monarchy governed by the House of Savoy. 

It was under the rule of this House that Mussolini came to power in the early 1920's, leading to the fascist regime in Italy and the Axis alliance with Nazi Germany. After disastrous defeats in Eastern Europe and North Africa, the Italian empire collapsed. Mussolini was arrested by order of King Victor Emmanuel III, which provoked a civil war. The northern half of the country was occupied by the Nazis with the cooperation of Italian fascists, becoming a puppet-state. The south was controlled by the monarchy, which fought for the Allied cause. However, the Italian resistance movement (the "partisans") operated all over Italy. In April 1945, Mussolini was assassinated by Italian partisans two days before Hitler's suicide. This led to the call for a national referendum for Italians to decide whether they wanted to be a republic or a monarchy.

The results of the referendum are quite interesting to me, which ended up with about 55% of the population voting to become a republic versus the 45% who wanted to remain a monarchy. The blue in this image represents those areas with a majority vote for a republic, the red for the monarchy. In central Italy in particular - where the independent city-states and democratic institutions were formed - the population overwhelmingly voted to form a republic, to be self-governing.

Italy's history is so much more complex than what I've captured in these few paragraphs. It's a fascinating study of the struggle between the three areas represented by the three piazzas - that of the church, the people, and the political system. 

One last note about the preservation of the cathedral in Duomo. There's a fascinating story captured here on how this lily of Italian cathedrals was preserved near the end of the second World War. As Allied forces approached from the south, they were greeted by a Volkswagen, carrying a young German officer waving a white flag who spoke perfect English. He carried a message from the German commander based in the city: "In consideration of the historic beauty of Orvieto, the German commander proposes to the allied command that the city of Orvieto be declared open." 

The allied commander agreed and fighting continued away from the city, saving this beautiful medieval city with its incomparable duomo. 

Fino a tardi, arrivederci!

(Molte grazie to the website, Orvieto Viva, for much of the history on this and previous blog pages.)

Saturday, May 27, 2023

Sabbatical 2023: Time for Vita Comunitaria

I made the mistake yesterday of going to the local grocery store during the noon rush. Here, as in most small villages in Italy, things shut down around 12:30 or so for the afternoon riposo. So, right around this time, the grocery store is packed with people headed home from work or from school to pick up a few things for lunch. Italians don't shop for groceries once a week, but, because they can so easily walk to the grocery store, usually go every day or couple of days. 

Looking at this idea of riposo (or siesta in Spanish, which you might know better) from an American cultural viewpoint, we might consider this unproductive. And unnecessary. A waste of good working or learning time. This tradition, though, came out of necessity, especially in more southern places where the heat of the day can be intense. Buildings weren't air conditioned. It was dangerous for workers to be outside in these high temperatures. So, this cultural phenomenon developed. Everyone goes home to have lunch and to rest. Then, around 5p, when things started to cool down, they return to work and school for about another 3 hours or so.

This is possible when you live and work and go to school in a small village because you live within easy walking distance of everywhere you need to be. School is a 5-10 minute walk away. The grocery store and other shops are the same. So, are workplaces. By slowing down the pace of life, spending time together, meeting one another on the street as you're walking to and fro, and even running into each other in the grocery store during the noon rush - all of this creates community. Add into it the evening tradition of the la passeggiata - an evening stroll where the entire family goes out and walks the main corso together, running into friends and other family members, catching up on the news of the day - then followed by another time of gathering together for a meal that often stretches late into the evening, and vita comunitaria (communal life) just happens. Naturally. All the time.

During the period of the Middle Ages, all three of the major religions - Judaism, Islam and Christianity - innovated their spiritual traditions centered around the idea of God as lover and human beings as beloved, an acknowledgement of the feminine in spirituality. The many rich and abundant texts by female mystics were composed in and for very specific communities. As urban centers grew, the need for pastoral care in towns and cities required greater lay participation. Lay women and men organized themselves into these communities, some endorsed by the Church and others not. Spirituality was formed in community. Pastoral care was offered from within these communities. Even in the U.S., up until the individualism of the 20th century, much of faith life was developed through communal life. 

My time in Orvieto reflecting on vita comunitaria, both past and present, makes me recognize that we've lost something in America. Faith is meant to be shaped and lived out communally. Each of us is blessed by God with unique gifts to serve that community, which then offers them more fully in greater society. We are called to be the body of Christ, working together, then sent out to perform what Ulrike Wietnaus calls "street mysticism." It is on the streets where we find sacred space like the feminine mystics did - in the open spaces of markets, churches, shrines dedicated to the saints, shops, apothecaries, roads and hospitals. It is on the streets where the spiritual and the secular mix. (Perrin, 4-7)

This Sunday is Pentecost Sunday. It's a huge festival in Orvieto that celebrates the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the Apostles. Here, it is celebrated in the streets of this village - communally - with a Vigil mass, processions, an art festival, an evening dance, then culminating on Sunday with the palombella, an ancient aerial transit of a dove (la columba) from the Church of St. Frances (Chiesa de San Francesco) to the duomo with fireworks. (I promise to take pictures as long as you don't show them to PETA!) Here, the sacred intermingles with the secular. There is no separation. One can only wonder how much fuller the lives of Orvietans are because these two aspects of life - and our very beings - aren't separated from each other, but fully intertwined as part of life together. 

Something to think about on this Vigil of Pentecost. Fino a tardi!

Thursday, May 25, 2023

Sabbatical 2023: Orvieto - A Little History

The history of Orvieto is quite fascinating. Like the other hill towns of central Italy, it sits on a huge mass of tufa rock, likely from an ancient volcanic eruption. This rock is solid in some parts, not so solid in others.

Orvieto's first traceable history comes from the Etruscan civilization, beginning about the 9th century BCE. This was a culture of great splendor and importance and Orvieto (known then as Velzna) was the most important town in the Etruria territory. Below the cliffs of this village, archaeologists and histories discovered what they think is the Fanum Volumnae, an ancient sanctuary that was thought to be the center of the Etruscan religion. 

Here, the Crocifisso del Tufo necropolis was excavated, along with remains of the Temple of Belvedere. The necropolis is an ancient burial site consisting of over 200 tombs made of tuff (tufa) blocks. This is a likely predecessor to what tombs looked like in the the time of Christ. Each tomb was owned by individual families and was marked with family names, which can still be seen. In a tour I took in my last visit, our archaeologist tour guide mentioned that there is an early connection between one of the families, whose tomb is in this burial site, with that of Remus and Romulus, the traditional founders of Rome. 

Velzna was also the political center, where the leaders of the 12 major Etruscan cities (dodecapoli) would gather to worship the gods and decide by common consent the political strategies to adopt.

Under the settlement, the Etruscans built a series of caves and tunnels to connect themselves. They did this because they often were under siege from unfriendly neighbors. Many of the homes in the village have underground "basements," some of which have been excavated to connect up to the various tunnels. There are still olive presses in some of these caves, dating from the Middle Ages. And they are still great places to store cheese and wine, two commodities for which Orvieto is famous. 

Eventually, Orvieto fell to Rome in the third century BC, although it took them two years to conquer this natural fortress, with cliffs on all sides and its intricate web of caves and numerous wells. The Romans destroyed most of the evidence of the Etruscans and then used the area to supply crops, wine and other goods to Rome. There are only a few traces of Roman civilization in the village.  

This area was dominated by the Goths, Byzantines and Lombards until about 1000 CE. It was then that Orvieto began to repopulate, especially on the northwest side, which is known today as the Medieval Quarter. This is evidenced by the presence of the Chiesa d'San Giovenale (Church of St. John), whose first documentation was in 1004. (More on Orvieto churches later!)

During the 13th and 14th centuries, Orvieto, then called Urbs Vetus (See the present name taking shape?), advanced and increased its power. It was a time of great artistic and cultural flourishing. Thomas Aquinas taught in a school here and composed a special liturgy for the Feast of Corpus Christi, which originated here (more on that later). Pope Urban IV found refuge here from a civil war in Rome for a couple of years. Other popes "summered" in Orvieto. Most importantly, this time included the construction of the duomo. The cathedral, besides being known for its beautiful mosaic facade, also contains in its chapel (Chapel of San Brizio) frescoes by Fra Angelico and, most famously, Luca Signorelli's masterpiece, the Last Judgment, based on Dante's Divine Comedy, written in 1314. 

This amazing time ended in 1348, when a pandemic followed by continuous internal fighting within a ruling family (sound at all familiar?) destroyed the Comune of Orvieto. It came under the rule of the Papal State and, then, in 1860, was annexed to the Kingdom of Italy. 

This history with all of its drama and richness is, in large part, what draws me to Orvieto. Sometimes, I think that, in the US, we're too young as a nation to understand that our hold on democracy is tenuous. That it takes constant work and effort to maintain it. Here, in Italy, the people understand this. And, they also know that life goes on. That history continues. And that, no matter what, there is resurrection and life even after death and destruction. 

Or, in the words of Julian of Norwich (b. 1343), an English feminine mystic: "All will be well. And all will be well. And all manner of things will be well."

Fino a tardi, arrivederci!

Wednesday, May 24, 2023

Sabbatical 2023: First Days in Orvieto

In these early days of my sabbatical, I have been simply trying to rest and relax and unplug a little. Last week I spent most of it in riposo, as Italians might call it. This week I'm actually in Italy - more precisely in my favorite hill town, Orvieto, located in the province of Umbria. Orvieto is most known for it's duomo, one of the most beautiful in all of Italy that is called the "lily" of all cathedrals.

This area is rich in so many ways - natural beauty, art, food, beverages, and, especially, history. It's a place in my personal history, too. In 2006, I came here along with a small cohort from Fuller Seminary for a summer intensive. We immersed ourselves in the theology, spirituality and art of the medieval period - a time so integral to this area, to the church, and, honestly, to Western civilization. These Middle Ages - often misnamed as the Dark Ages - were actually a time of great expansion, whether culturally, artistically, spiritually and theologically. During my few weeks here that summer, I learned so much about the important influence that women had then in the church through their writing and witness - an understanding that we've only just begun to unearth over the past several decades. During those weeks, I also made a few lifelong friends.

So, I'm back in 2023 to this place so dear to my heart. It's my fourth time here. Each time I arrive I feel like I've returned to my spiritual home. This time is no different, other than that it will be the longest number of days I've spent here. I'm trying not to live as a tourist, but to settle in. To shop for food every day or so in Pam Local, the nearby grocery store. To honor this culture's daily period of afternoon repose. To make new friendships and to renew old ones. To rest and to renew. 

During this time, I'll be refreshing my memory and expanding my learning of the feminine mystics of the Middle Ages, who come from this part of Italy. In a Facebook post a few days ago, I mentioned that I'll be reading Women Christian Mystics: Speak to Our Times, edited by David B. Perrin, OMI. In his introduction to a series of essays, this is what HE writes about listening again to these women who have "lived valiantly the drama of human life and who, to date, have not had the opportunity to teach us."

"Listening again does not mean we sit back in our comfortable tightly knit intellectual dwelling places and sigh contently knowing we've done our part to heal past wounds by passively patronizing women's stories with albeit our attentive ears. No, listening again means to allow their stories to touch our stories, to let their lives enter into our lives such that we gain the hard-won wisdom they have to offer. Nor does listening again mean we laboriously try to fit their stories into our preconceived categories. Rather, we listen in order to allow their stories to BREAK OPEN the sealed containers within which we sometimes live. We need their stories to provide for us the grist for our own wisdom. They have walked treacherous and burdensome ways, as do we as individuals and as a collective body. Taking up their stories into our lives provides some wider context within which we can reflect and expand our own worlds outside the often times patriarchal or other limiting horizons against which we have come to know and define who we are as Christians and as human beings."

May this time break me open from the sealed container in which I often live. May it provide discernment and wisdom. May it open me to a broader context and expansion of my own thought and being. And, particularly, may I be renewed and refreshed to live authentically.

Hello, Orvieto - my old friend! And, to you dear reader, welcome to Orvieto!

Sunday, March 12, 2023

Seeking: Who is invited?

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 slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding banquet, but they would not come. Again he sent other slaves, saying, ‘Tell those who have been invited: Look, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet.’ But they made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business, while the rest seized his slaves, mistreated them, and killed them. The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city. Then he said to his slaves, ‘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.’ Those slaves went out into the streets 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?’ And he was speechless. Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ For many are called, but few are chosen.” --Matthew 22:1-14 (NRSV)

Wow. Just wow. Okay. So, who would like to interpret this parable this morning?

Before we dig into this text in earnest, there are a couple of things I’d like to mention. 

First, we have to be careful not to jump too quickly into the allegorical interpretation. An allegory is a story or picture or poem that can be interpreted to reveal a hidden meaning, usually a moral or political meaning. It’s important for us, especially with Jesus’ parables, that we first look closely at the story, before we jump to trying to figure out its allegorical meaning. We try to understand what is going on, first, because doing this can then help us draw out its meaning for us. 

The second caution is about hyperbole. 

In Matthew, in particular, Jesus’ parables contain a lot of hyperbole, of exaggeration. If you think about the community that Matthew is writing to, a community some 50 years after Jesus ascended that has been tossed out from their religious and social community, it might be easier to understand that, as Matthew captures Jesus’ parables, there is an edge to them. Whether it is anger or cynicism, Matthew’s Jesus exaggerates. For far too long, the church has used scripture, including this parable, against the Jewish people in a way that encourages anti-Semitism. Jesus’ parables contain a lot of hyperbole - exaggeration. Why? To catch the reader’s attention. To draw them into the story. Sometimes, to shock them. To drive home a point. Does that mean, then, that we should take Jesus’ parables literally? Probably not. But, we also should not miss the point. We should take it seriously.

So, what do we first see in this story? We have a king who is inviting guests to a banquet. But, even before this, we have this opening phrase: Once more Jesus spoke to them in parables…” So there are other parables that have been told before this one to “them.” If we back up into chapter 21, we see that Jesus and his disciples are in Jerusalem. We’ve skipped ahead because we will read this on Palm Sunday. 

The first thing Jesus does is to go into the temple and overturn the moneychanger tables. Then, Jesus curses the fig tree. This is an irritable Jesus we see in chapter 21. Soon, the religious leaders confront him and challenge his authority to teach in the temple. This is followed by two parables that are spoken directly to the chief priests and elders. And not in a good way. By the end of chapter 21, they want to arrest him. But, they are afraid because Jesus is so popular - thought by the crowds to be a prophet.

Then comes this parable in our text today, spoken to "them" - the chief priests and elders.

Now, something else you need to know is that in ancient times it was the custom to invite guests to a banquet in two phases. First, messengers would be sent to the guests, several days in advance, to invite them. And to tell them to be ready at an approximately time. The second invitation would be sent when the feast was ready. The guests were now to come. 

It appears that, in the story, we first learn about this second invitation. So, those invited have had fair warning to make sure they are available to attend. But, they violate the ancient rules of hospitality by refusing to come, something close to rebellion. Then, asked again, two of the invited guests walk away to go back to their business affairs. Others seize the servants, attack them and kill them. 

Is it any wonder that this king is furious? Wouldn’t, if something like this happened in our day - wouldn’t there be repercussions?

But, there is still a wedding feast waiting. So servants are once again sent by the monarch into the streets to invite everyone they can find. Good and bad. And they gather them into the wedding hall to begin this great feast. 

Maybe, up to this point, we kind of get this story. It’s about invitation and hospitality. About how God invites everyone, good and bad. And about some - particularly privileged - who simply ignore or even refuse God’s invitation. Or worse yet, seek to harm God’s servants.

But, then, we get to the last part of the story. 

Who can make sense of this? How could it be expected that someone gathered up off the streets into the great hall would need to wear a special garment, much less even own one?

What we need to understand is that traditionally the king would have had appropriate garments ready for his guests. The individual did not put on the garment provided - perhaps even refused to put on the garment,, thus, shaming the king. He is cast out not because of who he is, but because of what he chooses to do. Or not to do. In this, he dishonors the king.

So what does this mean for us? (Now, we get to the allegorical interpretation.). There are likely many meanings to this parable. But, perhaps one interpretation is that this is about “cheap grace.” We’ve talked about this before. This is a phrase first written by Dietrich Bonhoeffer in the years leading up to the second world war, as he and others tried to engage the broader church in stopping Hitler and his movement. Cheap grace, as he writes, is a grace without repentance. Or sacrifice. And, ultimately without a cross. It’s accepting God’s invitation, but refusing to “put on the garment of faith,” as Paul puts it. To truly live as one of God’s people. To do the work of discipleship - prayer, fasting, giving to the poor. Standing up to evil and power, especially when it is harming those whom society has pushed to the edges. It’s refusing to put in our time or energy or resources to serve God. It’s refusing to sacrifice. 

To be a disciple requires costly grace. Because it calls us to fully follow - to follow Jesus Christ. This kind of grace is costly. Because it cost Jesus his life.

So where are you in your Lenten journey? Have you, three weeks in given up on any fast or practice you decided to take on? Why is that? Or, perhaps, you have remained steadfast. How might this practice be more fully incorporated into your life as a disciple beyond Lent?

May we, this Lent, accept God’s invitation to the wedding banquet. But, may we also willingly put on the garment of costly grace. The garment of sacrifice. The garment worthy of the bridegroom himself - Jesus Christ, Son of God.


Preached Sunday, March 12, 2023, at Grace & Glory Lutheran, Prospect, with Third Lutheran, Louisville.
Lent 3
Readings: Matthew 22:1-14; Psalm 45:6-7

Seeking: How are we to live?

For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. When he went out about nine o'clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; and he said to them, 'You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.' So they went. When he went out again about noon and about three o'clock, he did the same. And about five o'clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, 'Why are you standing here idle all day?' They said to him, 'Because no one has hired us.' He said to them, 'You also go into the vineyard.' When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, 'Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.' When those hired about five o'clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, saying, 'These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.' But he replied to one of them, 'Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?' So the last will be first, and the first will be last." --Matthew 20:1-16 (NRSV)

On Thursday night, at Third’s council meeting, we dwelled in this story for a while. One of the first questions I asked was how they had heard this parable interpreted. Or what meaning they understood it to have? 

As I began my study of this text, I was once again reminded that this parable has been interpreted a myriad of ways throughout the past 2,000 years. I came across at least 8 different interpretations and several that were spin-offs of these eight.

So, I’m curious. And I’m going to ask the same question I asked the council on Thursday night to you. Here and now. How have you heard this parable interpreted? What do you understand it to mean? 

Yesterday, in our Saturday morning study, we talked about how who interprets Scripture has changed over the centuries. The interpretation of Scripture began as an oral tradition. Within communities. But, during certain times over the past 2,000 years, as people became more illiterate, the job of interpreting scripture was turned over to the “experts.”  Do you consider yourself an “expert?” I wonder, for many of us - myself included for a very long time - how many of us, because we don’t think we are experts, then rarely pick up our Bible to read it, much less understand it. Maybe that’s true for you. Maybe not.

Today, you and I - together - are going to exegete this text. To exegete means to draw out. You are I are going to try to draw out the meaning of this text. For us, for this community. We’re going to let go of any other interpretations we’ve read. We’re going to draw out the meaning of this text for this community. Right now. Together. In this place. 

But, first, to dispel some of your fear, we’re going to have a little fun. I need eight volunteers. 

Who wants to be our first storyteller? This person will start the story by saying one sentence that begins with the words, “Once upon a time…”. They must use the word that they received in their sentence. The next person in line will continue the story by adding one sentence that must contain the world they drew. This will continue until everyone has added to the story. The last person should end with the words, “The end.” Ready?

This story was certainly different from what we could have expected, wouldn’t you agree? There were twists and turns and things maybe felt a little unpredictable. As we study and learn parables, we realize that God’s kingdom often flips things around, catching us off guard. Jesus’ parables were meant to have twists that surprised the listeners, including us. Twists that highlighted the fact that God’s ways are often different from our own. Different from what we might expect. They’re also a little unpredictable. For example, the early workers in today’s story thought they knew what would happen, but they ended up surprised. And a little grumpy.

So, let’s work our way carefully through this text. What are some of the things you notice? Is there anything you wonder about this story? 

As we get near the end of the story, we hear from the workers who were first to arrive. It seems that they felt that the landowner was not being fair. 
  • Do you agree? Or disagree? Why or why not?
  • Think about a time when something happened that felt fair. How did you feel?
  • Now think about a time when someone was surprisingly generous, especially when they didn’t have to be. What did that feel like?
  • Do you think we focus more on generosity or fairness in our society?
  • What is Jesus trying to teach us about the kingdom of God in this story?
We live in a world that teaches us scarcity. That there is not enough, for us, for everyone. This teaches us a mindset of scarcity that leads us to believe that we have to get what we can for ourselves and for our families. That we never have enough. Or that we cannot produce or do enough. That we are just not enough. It is a vicious cycle that just grinds us into the ground and leads to jealousy, resentment, to coveting that which our neighbor has or is. 

Friends, you and I are enough. You and I have enough. 

Every Sunday we pray to God to “Give us this day our daily bread.” God promises to give us what we need each day. Just as God ensured that each one of these workers had a day’s wage. Not a year’s worth. Or a month’s worth. Or even a week’s worth. But a day’s worth. Because, that is what God promises to provide us. Because God is generous. Because, God promises to care for us. Because God has provided enough for us and for all people. Because God loves us. 

In turn, God invites us to be generous. To let go. To share with others. And to trust that we will have what we need. Always.

May God grant that we learn to trust in God's generosity and, in turn learn to be generous as well. Amen.

Preached Sunday, March 5, 2023, at Grace & Glory Lutheran, Prospect, with Third Lutheran, Louisville.
Lent 2
Readings: Matthew 20:1-16; Psalm 16:5-8

Seeking: How are we to forgive and be forgiven?

“If your brother or sister sins against you, go and correct them when you are alone together. If they listen to you, then you’ve won over your brother or sister. But if they won’t listen, take with you one or two others so that every word may be established by the mouth of two or three witnesses. But if they still won’t pay attention, report it to the church. If they won’t pay attention even to the church, treat them as you would a Gentile and tax collector. I assure you that whatever you fasten on earth will be fastened in heaven. And whatever you loosen on earth will be loosened in heaven. Again I assure you that if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, then my Father who is in heaven will do it for you. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I’m there with them.”

Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, how many times should I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Should I forgive as many as seven times?”

Jesus said, “Not just seven times, but rather as many as seventy-seven times. Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. When he began to settle accounts, they brought to him a servant who owed him ten thousand bags of gold. Because the servant didn’t have enough to pay it back, the master ordered that he should be sold, along with his wife and children and everything he had, and that the proceeds should be used as payment. But the servant fell down, kneeled before him, and said, ‘Please, be patient with me, and I’ll pay you back.’ The master had compassion on that servant, released him, and forgave the loan.

“When that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him one hundred coins. He grabbed him around the throat and said, ‘Pay me back what you owe me.’

“Then his fellow servant fell down and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I’ll pay you back.’ But he refused. Instead, he threw him into prison until he paid back his debt.

“When his fellow servants saw what happened, they were deeply offended. They came and told their master all that happened. His master called the first servant and said, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you appealed to me. Shouldn’t you also have mercy on your fellow servant, just as I had mercy on you?’ His master was furious and handed him over to the guard responsible for punishing prisoners, until he had paid the whole debt.

“My heavenly Father will also do the same to you if you don’t forgive your brother or sister from your heart.” --Matthew 18:15-35 (CEB)

I’d like you to think, for just a moment, about how stories help us to picture and imagine things differently than simply hearing someone state an explanation or a rule. As we heard last week, Jesus often uses stories - or parables - to teach. We’re going to have a little fun this morning. I invite you to turn to a neighbor or two and together brainstorm as many parables from the Bible as you can think of in three minutes. Select one person to write them down as you go. Hint: We heard three of them in last week’s reading. Ready? Set. Go. 

Why do you think Jesus chooses to use so many parables in his teaching? Many of Jesus’ parables begin with the words, “the kingdom of God is like…” Jesus is trying to explain to his disciples what life is like in God’s kingdom.

As we continue through the Sundays of Lent, we will be discovering many different glimpses of God’s kingdom. We’ll be asking a lot of questions about these to try to understand how we might learn to live these ways in our present time to help make this community and, then, our broader lives, a little more like God’s kingdom as we await its fulfillment. God will bring the kingdom fully, but we can make our spaces look a little more like it each day. 

Today, Jesus is talking about forgiveness in the kingdom of God. And, particularly, about forgiveness within community. When I use the word “community,” how do you understand that? What are some of your communities? Allow time for responses. 

Matthew, the gospel writer, was writing this for his specific community. It was a community that was under stress. Mostly Jewish, they had been cast out of the temple, out of an entire way of life. On top of that, they were experiencing the very real possibility of persecution. So, part of Matthew’s goal in narrating this parable from Jesus is to help his community learn how to be in relationship with one another, even in the midst of these major stressors.

It begins with civility. I’d like to read a paragraph from a book written by Gilbert Rendle. He is a church consultant who works with resolving church conflict. This is what he writes in the opening introduction to his book, entitled, Behavioral Covenants in Congregations: A Handbook for Honoring Differences

My work as a senior consultant with the Alban Institute regularly puts me into working relationships with congregations that are experiencing conflict and in which members exhibit behaviors which stand in contrast to my understanding of the teachings of their faith. I have witnessed small groups in which some members demand that other members leave the room because they do not trust speaking in front of them. I have interviewed congregational members who have leveled accusations against others based not on what they themselves have experienced or witnessed but rather on hearsay information repeated and embellished by friends whose personal preferences were not being met. I have worked with a congregation in which very wealthy and powerful members of the governing board held a formal victory party in the home of one of the leaders to celebrate their success in forcing their rector not only out of the church but out of town as well. He was sufficiently hurt and damaged that he would tell no one, not even his bishop, where he had gone. I have counseled with clergy who have considered or chosen to take legal action against their governing boards, casting all blame on the board rather than accepting their part in a difficult relationship that would require change and the seeking of forgiveness in order to be productive in ministry.

Do any of you know any congregations or clergy like that? (It may be too scary to answer that.) And, now, a harder and, honestly for me, a scary question, do any of you experience any of that here? Or with me? (If your answer is yes to that question, I encourage you to speak to me.)

Rendle goes on to add this: 

Although my relationship as a consultant makes me privy to more extreme examples of uncivil behavior than others who live and work in congregations, all clergy and laity commonly encounter behaviors that fall short of faith standards. I suggest that such behaviors are rooted, in part, in an inheritance based in cultural and congregational assumptions that we are now beginning to understand. Chief among those assumptions is the current notion that as individuals we do not have to defer to the need of the larger group, be it family, congregation, or community.

This book was first written in 1989, then updated in 1999 - nearly 25 years ago. I’m wondering, if we look at our world today, has much changed? Do we demand that our individual rights, or individual beliefs, are more important than communal rights or beliefs? 

What is the goal of conflict? That may seem an odd question, because I don’t think we often consider that there is a goal to conflict. The goal of conflict is reconciliation. Reconciliation with one another so that the community may be whole. Always. That is God’s definition of justice. When there is conflict within community or between community members, the whole community is impacted.

So, what do we do when we experience hurt from another? Jesus gives us a clear cut path. In fact, Jesus orders this clear cut path. First, we go to that sibling to address it. In other words, we don’t go on social media. We don’t triangulate - meaning we don’t go complain about that person to anyone else. We don’t even go to the pastor. We go to that person who has hurt us. And we try to reconcile with them. Period. Notice that, in our text, when 2 or more are gathered, Jesus says he is present. So, if we believe that, how might it change how we approach the person who has hurt us, knowing that Jesus is standing beside us in that conversation? Or how does that change our response if we are the one who has caused the hurt?

But, the direct approach may not always work. So then, Jesus tells us to take one or two community members with us to speak with that person. To try to find reconciliation. 

And that may not work. It is then to be reported to the entire community. And, if that doesn’t work then, as Jesus says, you should treat them as you would a tax collector or Gentile. But not so fast. Anyone remember how Jesus treated tax collectors and Gentles? That’s right. He took them to lunch. He didn’t cut them off. He took them to lunch. What does that say?

Our relationships matter. Here in this community and outside this place in your other communities. They matter to God, so they should matter to us. 

There’s a flip side to this conflict resolution that we also have to notice - the entire point of the parable Jesus tells. It’s about forgiveness. When we go to someone who has hurt us. And when (notice I said when) - when they acknowledge that they have hurt us and they repent and seek forgiveness from us, we are to forgive them. It doesn’t mean that, depending on the deepness of the hurt, it will happen immediately. In cases of abuse, it may take a lifetime. But, we, if we have been the victim of harm, are also called to do the work of forgiving. Not just within ourselves, but with the perpetrator of harm. As difficult as that may be. To not forgive is to keep ourselves trapped in the effects of the harm. Or as Marjorie Thompson writes, “Forgiveness means the power of the original wound’s power to hold us trapped is broken.” 

Because, ultimately, what is at stake here isn’t just a matter of debt and repayment, or sin and forgiveness, but the balance and integrity - the authenticity - of the community. Because this is the example we have from our Creator. Mercy. Or grace. Which is the thread that holds the kingdom together. 

One final note: In Hebrew there are something like five different words for sin. All different types of sin. But, one of those words defines the sin of not believing you are forgiven. I dare say that some of us - perhaps, many of us - have difficulty believing that we are forgiven by one another. And, even more so that we are forgiven by God.

May we, through the power of the Holy Spirit, live into forgiveness and into being authentic followers of Jesus as we build these authentic communities of faith. Amen.

Preached Sunday, February 26, 2023, at Grace & Glory Lutheran, Prospect, with Third Lutheran, Louisville.
Lent 1
Readings: Matthew 18:15-35; Psalm 32:1-2

Seeking - Hard Questions for a Deeper Faith: Is This the Fast I Choose?

At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”

Then he called a little child over to sit among the disciples, and said, “I assure you that if you don’t turn your lives around and become like this little child, you will definitely not enter the kingdom of heaven. Those who humble themselves like this little child will be the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.

“As for whoever causes these little ones who believe in me to trip and fall into sin, it would be better for them to have a huge stone hung around their necks and be drowned in the bottom of the lake. How terrible it is for the world because of the things that cause people to trip and fall into sin! Such things have to happen, but how terrible it is for the person who causes those things to happen! If your hand or your foot causes you to fall into sin, chop it off and throw it away. It’s better to enter into life crippled or lame than to be thrown into the eternal fire with two hands or two feet. If your eye causes you to fall into sin, tear it out and throw it away. It’s better to enter into life with one eye than to be cast into a burning hell with two eyes. --Matthew 18:1-9 (CEB) 

When my son, Michael, was little, we often had our best conversations before and after I went to work, as I would drive him back and forth to preschool. At one point - about the time he was 3 years old - he began to ask questions. A lot of questions. Endless questions. (Perhaps you have had or are currently having that same experience. Or perhaps you are the one asking those questions.) 

Why is the sun in the sky? He might ask. Because, God placed it there to give us warmth and light during the day. Where does it go when it’s cloudy? It doesn’t go anywhere. The clouds are just covering it up. Where do clouds come from? You get the idea. Questions. A lot of questions. Endless questions.

Today, we begin the season of Lent. We are leaning this year into a theme, entitled Seeking: Hard Questions for a Deeper Faith. I will be asking you a lot of questions. They may, as with my son, feel endless. Yet, asking questions is important. More on that in a little bit. 

So, of course, our text tonight opens with a question. Not a question asked by a child, but by adults. By Jesus’ disciples. Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven? I’m not sure there was any ill intent underneath this question. Unlike in the other gospels, there are no disciples that seem to be jostling for power. It is a question asked out of a very cultural framework. An expected way of being that has been learned as part of becoming an adult. That having different status in the world or in a community or among the disciples is just the way it is. 

Notice that, instead of answering them right away, Jesus first calls a little child over to sit among them.

For you and I, while this may see a little unusual, for the disciples it was likely a little scandalous. In the ancient world, righteousness was typically centered on an adult, male worldview. Children were not considered part of the social, religious, or economic world. They were considered insignificant. Especially vulnerable to disease. And hunger. And marginalization. They were seen as being incapable of rational thought. Often viewed with suspicion and seen as being prone to violence and unpredictable outbursts. (Think toddler tantrums.) This behavior strongly contrasted with the preferred norm of an orderly adult. Because of this had no status in this world. None. 

So, for Jesus to call forward a child to use as an illustration for this teaching moment - well, the disciples must have been a little upset by this, especially after asking what, for them in their culture, seemed like a perfectly reasonable question. Because, if one has been inculturated to believe that status is everything (sound familiar?), it might feel a little insulting to be given a show and tell moment that uses a child to teach it. 

Jesus tells them they must be more childlike. Not to be children, but childlike. 

What is it about children that Jesus wants the disciples to see? Is it that naivete - the way in which they look at the world through eyes of wonder? Or perhaps it's, as with my son and his questions, a sense of curiosity about how the world works? Or maybe it’s because of the way children seem to be so teachable, so open to new things and new ways and new people? Or perhaps it’s all of the above?

These verses are part of the fourth of five discourses of Jesus in Matthew - what is known as the community discourse for its instruction on communal living. This discourse was likely written to instruct the early churches on how to build community and to deal with conflicts within the community and between one another.  The childlike nature that Matthew is trying to teach his community through Jesus’ response to the disciples question is that of curiosity. And wonder. And openness. It is a way of life Jesus is inviting them into - a way that is counter-cultural, opposite to what we learn as adults. That is not at all concerned about status, but about ensuring that everyone in the community is lifted up, particularly those who are naive in the faith. Those viewed as insignificant. Those who are the most vulnerable in our faith communities. 

It’s a direct contrast to those whom God, through the prophet, calls out in our first text. These are the ones Isaiah is so frustrated with because their priorities are so skewed. People who appear to be deeply religious. Who appear to seek God. Who appear to delight God. Who appear to draw near to God. Their actions, however, are completely disconnected from what they say they believe. In keeping the fast, they think they are seeking God’s ways. But, Isaiah calls out their hypocrisy - as Jesus does with the disciples in a somewhat gentler way. 

The reason that God has not heard their cries or noticed them in their fasting, Isaiah tells them, is because it is entirely self-serving. They observe the fasting rituals, while at the same time they are guilty of oppressing their workers and living in discord with their neighbors. But worse, they neglect those with real need in their communities - the hungry, the homeless, and those without adequate clothing. As theologian Sally McFague so famously said, “If God is absent from this world, it is because we are.” 

Their fast is not God’s fast.

The fast God desires in Isaiah is the same way of living Christ calls the disciples - and us - to in Matthew. To fast from isolationism and stigmatizing and and lean into a way of curiosity and reaching out. To fast from identifying people with status and, rather, focusing on hospitality and welcome. To fast from cynicism and doubt and, instead, marveling with wonder at the ways of God, who seeks to build, to restore, to feed, to cloth, to care, and to repair individuals and communities. A God who seeks to mend the world.

Friends, on this night, as we have put on the metaphorical sackcloth of repentance and have received the ashes that remind us of our own mortality, may we be reminded that there is resurrection after death. And may we live into it with a new way of fasting this season - the fast that we are called to this Lent: to be repairers of the breach and restorers of the street. What a beautiful image of healing and restoration for ourselves, our faith communities, our world! 

And so, here is the first of many questions. Of a lot of questions to come.

Which fast will you choose?

Preached Wednesday, February 22, 2023, at Grace & Glory Lutheran, Prospect, with Third Lutheran, Louisville.
Ash Wednesday
Readings: Matthew 18:1-9, Isaiah 58:1-12, Psalm 146:7c-10