Sermon: March 11, 2018 – “God is Love?” – Part 5

“God is Love?” – Part 5

Text: Matthew 20: 1-16

“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. 2 After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. 3 When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; 4 and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. 5 When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. 6 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?’ 7 They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’ 8 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.’ 9 When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage.10 Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. 11 And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, 12 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.’ 13 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? 14 Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. 15 Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ 16 So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

I wanted to begin this morning by looking first at the validity of this text. I am going to be leaning heavily on this text as we look at this story in Matthew as it relates to our topic of the love of God. It isn’t unusual for us to look at scripture within a certain parameters and I have always felt it was important to be aware of the historical context of a scripture as well. Most of the conflicts and the darker chapters of church history can be traced back to a poor interpretation of scripture. We were slow to ordain women into leadership positions because of a poor interpretation of scripture. We allowed slavery to persist in this country for centuries partially due to poor interpretation of scripture. We are currently engaged in a debate about LGBT rights and privileges in the United Methodist church and it is my opinion that the reason any debate exists is because of poor interpretation of scripture. I’ve said this before, but it’s worth repeating; we need to be very careful with scripture and our interpretation of scripture.

A few years ago a group of Bible scholars got together with the purpose in mind to try to determine the actual sayings and teachings of Jesus. You might find this challenging, but much of what is recorded in the four Gospels and other places in our New Testament as things that Jesus said, many scholars who have studied their entire lives have come to the conclusion that Jesus did not say these things. This is not to say that these portions of scripture are bad or should be thrown out, but we do need to pay attention, I think, to what might be the actual words of Jesus and what might be the opinion of some particular author. This is one way we hold certain parameters around scripture and avoid falling into the trap of committing barbaric acts based on a poor understanding of scripture.

This group of Bible scholars, about 75 of them, mostly PHD’s and Bible professors who teach in universities and seminaries, gathered together in what became known as the Jesus Seminar. I want you to understand that I have received some Bible training in seminary, and have continued my education since graduating from seminary, but these Bible scholars are all way above my pay grade. Each of them is an outstanding Bible scholar, with many of them having certain areas of expertise and experience. When this group agrees on something, I generally trust their judgment because of the size of the group and the collective wisdom the group represents.

One result of the Jesus Seminar, was this book, “The Five Gospels”. This book details the process and the meticulous study and care that was taken in developing a publication that offers us a candid look at what the actual words of Jesus might have been. There were 75 of these scholars, and they didn’t always agree 100% of the time. So they established a ranking system where they each weighed the validity of a particular text and then essentially arrived at a consensus. Each saying or teaching of Jesus that is found in our New Testament was then identified in one of four categories. These four categories are color coded in the book, ranging from bright red, to pink, to gray, to black. The bright red text means that the vast majority of these 75 scholars believed these words to be the actual words of Jesus. The pink words, less so, the gray words even less likely that Jesus said this, and the black words represent a consensus that there is little chance that Jesus said these things.

Here is what the text I just read a couple of minutes ago looks like in this publication; as you can see, it is all bright red, which means there is a strong probability that Jesus actually taught this lesson and spoke these words.

This is unusual for a text to survive the scrutiny of this group of scholars. It is also unusual for a text of this type to be considered so valid. I say that because the Gospel of Matthew is the only place we find this story. Usually, when a gospel has a standalone story, it is determined to be a local source or based in a local oral tradition of some kind and is unique to that particular author. This is not the case with this story; the Bible scholars associated with the Jesus Seminar believe this story to be a valid teaching of Jesus.

I have spent some time providing all this background information because I think that this text is challenging for us in a number of ways and it is helpful for us to realize that this text also reflects what was the understanding of Jesus as well. The story represents what Jesus thought was an accurate depiction of God’s love. So as we move toward concluding our study about this topic, if I were receiving this teaching instead of offering it, I would be more interested in what Jesus thought than what the instructor thinks.  All of this is to simply say that I think it is safe for us to lean heavily upon this particular story found in the Gospel of Matthew, because I believe it represents the true heart and mind of Jesus.

This is part five of what I figured would be a six-part series about discovering what we can learn with regard to the love of God. We have acknowledged that at times this love of God seems elusive or even non-existent when we consider the suffering in our world. We legitimately ask questions about the apparent lack of God’s love during our darkest hours and checkered history. Where was the love of God during the Holocaust or during the crusades? Where was the love of God in Hiroshima or Nagasaki when nuclear war was introduced to the world? Where is the love of God today when children are starving or refugees struggle to find clean water and a safe place to rest? Where is the love of God when a shooter randomly enters a high school in Florida and takes the lives of 17 others for no reason?

To help us answer some of these tough questions, I have made a couple of suggestions. One major suggestion has been to move away from a human image of God and to begin to think about God in new ways. Some of the other suggestions have been to think about the love of God in new ways as well. One of the ways we have done this is to break down the topic of love into smaller, more manageable pieces. To that end, I have treated the word love as an acronym and have offered some thoughts each week about different words that I thought were helpful descriptors of God’s love.

In past weeks we have looked at “limitless” and “luminous”, “obvious” and “optimistic” and last week we looked at two words that begin with the letter “v” – “vulnerable” and “vital”. Today, I want to add a few more words to our list that begin with the letter “e”.

Those words are “egalitarian” or if it is easier for you to think about “equal” is another word that is similar; I also want us to think about the words “emotionless” and “egoless” as they are portrayed in this particular teaching of Jesus.

That brings us back around to the text I read a few minutes ago. I think most of us understand the gist of this story, but there are a couple of things I want to call your attention to. The first is the opening sentence is verse one, where Jesus says “the kingdom of heaven is like…”

This sentence establishes for the reader or the listener what it is exactly that Jesus is talking about; the problem is, no one really knows for sure what exactly the kingdom of heaven is or what in particular Jesus was referring to. Did he mean salvation in the sense of getting into heaven? I don’t think so. Jesus used the phrase the kingdom of heaven or the kingdom of God interchangeably and at one point described the kingdom as not being a place, but rather “among” those who were gathered. Jesus also said the kingdom was not coming, but it had already arrived. I think in many ways the kingdom of heaven or the kingdom of God as Jesus used the phrase represents our relationship to God. It is my belief that we could take this opening phrase and safely modify to say the “love of God is like… “and have the text speak directly to our topic.

The next important item in this story is for us to realize what the laborers that had been in the field all day were actually upset about. Many of us think that they were upset because they didn’t receive more pay; this makes sense because they were expecting more pay because they had spent more hours in the field. But that isn’t what the text actually says. What the text says is that they were actually upset because the landowner had made those who only worked one hour equal to those who had labored all day. Look at it again in verses 11 & 12.

“And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, 12 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.”

What this story is telling us is that the love of God is equally given and equally available to all people. The text is also telling us that when others are considered our equal, particularly when we don’t think they are, it challenges our emotions and bruises our egos.

What is taking place in this story is interesting and needs to be looked at in greater detail and that is the topic of our sixth and final installment of this series. But I will give you a preview. If you think about this story for a minute, you will recognize that the workers who labored all day completely missed the opportunity to be thankful for the work and thankful for a full day’s pay because their egos and emotions got in the way. Instead of seeing the blessing, all they could see was what they considered to be an injustice. The egos and the emotions pushed out the love of God. It is almost as though the ego and the love of God are mutually exclusive; in other words where one is, the other cannot be.

So stay tuned for next week as we explore how the love of God is egalitarian, equal, emotionless and egoless and why it is critical we understand that. Go in peace.

Amen.

 

Sermon: March 4, 2018 – “God is Love?” – Part 4

“God is Love?” – Part 4

Text: Philippians 2: 5-8

5 Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
6 who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
7 but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
8     he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.

I wanted to begin this morning with a true story about a situation I became aware of while I was attending Seminary in Denver. I’m not going to use any real names, but the circumstances remain factual.

There was a clergy colleague of mine who reached out to help a teen-aged girl named Holly. Over the past several months Holly had made some poor choices and had really gotten herself into a bit of a tight spot. She had dropped out of high school and had been kicked out of her house by her parents. When her parents kicked her out, she went to live with one set of grand-parents who provided a room for her in their basement. When the grandparents discovered that she had been smoking in her room, which was a violation of the agreement they had made with each other, the grandparents also kicked her out.

By the time my clergy friend became aware of what was going on, Holly had been living in her car for over a week. She had no money, she was hungry, her car needed repairs and she didn’t have a warm place to sleep. This was in October and the nights were beginning to cool off.

The place where my colleague was living had an extra room that was not in use, so she offered it to Holly on a temporary basis. There were rules of course, but there was also grace. Over the course of the next few months, Holly stayed with the family of my colleague. She ate meals with them, slept in the spare room and began to feel better about herself and her situation over time.  My friend arranged to get the car repaired and paid for the parts necessary to get it running well again. With transportation and a safe place to stay, my friend began to work with Holly about getting a job and beginning to think about ways to become more independent.

There was a GED program at a local high school in the evenings nearby and so my colleague enrolled Holly in the program so she could get her GED. She attended the classes for several weeks and my clergy friend helped Holly remember to attend the classes and kept her on track. If I remember right, there was also a small fee, which my friend paid.

By this time it was the middle of the Christmas season and Holly stayed with the clergy family through the Holidays. They welcomed her into their family activities, bought her presents, had Christmas dinner together and made certain she felt  supported and not alone during this obviously hard time.

In January, the time came for the GED test. The program Holly was enrolled in had provided a study guide with sample questions and topics to be familiar with. It was at this time that my clergy friend discovered that Holly didn’t know how to study; she didn’t have any academic skills at all. She literally didn’t know what to do with sample questions and suggested topics. No wonder she had dropped out of high school, she simply did not know what to do to prepare for this test. Over the next few weeks Holly and my friend met each day for an hour or so and began to work through all the sample questions and the topics that had been provided them by the GED program.

Later in January on a Saturday morning Holly took her GED test and passed. She was now a high school graduate and ready to perhaps move on with her life in a positive way.

During these months, my friend had insisted that Holly check in every so often with both her parents and grandparents to let them know she was safe and OK. With this last check-in Holly began to share with her Grandfather all that had taken place and all that she had accomplished. She told him about the GED program, the study preparation and the fact that she had passed her test and she now had her high school diploma. Maybe for the first time in a long time, Holly had a little self-esteem.

On Monday morning after the Saturday test and after Holly had checked in, the grandfather called my clergy colleague. He was angry. He used derogatory language and he accused her of sabotage. She had stuck her nose into family business that was none of her business and now she had helped Holly study and pass her GED. He was upset with all of this. In the final sentence of his rant, the grandfather blurted out something that was very telling, he said that my friend had done all of these things for Holly and how do you think that made him feel? With that he hung up the phone.

The saga continues but I’m going to stop at this point.  What I wanted you to hear in this story is that love is vulnerable. The way of love can often lead to unintended consequences.

Over the last few weeks we have been exploring the topic of God’s love. I have tried to take an honest look at the love of God and have admitted that often it seems elusive. Often we raise questions about the love of God and why there is so much human struggling and human suffering if God truly loves us. I have suggested that part of the problem we have understanding the presence of God’s love is how we understand and relate to God. If we hold a human image of God and confuse God’s love with an emotional human type love, it can really backfire.

I have also started to look at the topic of love by considering love as an acronym and breaking the topic into smaller more manageable pieces. A couple of weeks ago, we looked at two words that I offered as positive descriptors of love that began with the letter “L” – those two words were “limitless” and “luminous”. Last week we had a discussion of two more words that began with the letter “O” and those two words were “obvious” and “optimistic”.

That brings us up to speed and to the point where we can look at a couple of words that begin with the letter “V”. The first word, just in case you haven’t figured it out yet, is “vulnerable” and the second word we are going to explore is “vital”.

I want to get back to the Holly story and the text that I read a few minutes ago, but before I do that, I want to take just a minute and talk about the vital nature of God’s love. A few years ago there was a movie released that starred Tom Hanks playing the part of Commander Jim Lovell as he was heading for the moon on board Apollo 13. Do you remember that movie? Most of you might even remember the actual events of Apollo 13 as they were unfolding in the early 1970’s.

The mission to the moon on Apollo 13 had a number of difficulties and the lives of the astronauts hung in the balance on a number of occasions. One such crisis was when they discovered that the spacecraft they were using to return to earth after orbiting the moon just one time was only designed for a short period of time and only designed for 2 people. They had 3 people in the spacecraft for an extended period of time. Luckily, they had enough oxygen to breathe, but what happened was when they took a breath, the astronauts also exhaled carbon dioxide. In an enclosed space capsule, you can’t just roll down a window and get some fresh air. The air has to be filtered to remove the carbon dioxide – if it is not filtered and the CO2 levels increase, the air becomes toxic. This would eventually cause the men on board to pass out and eventually be slowly poisoned to death.

The spacecraft had filters to filter the air. But because the number of people had increased, and the time spent on board the spacecraft had increased, the filters had become clogged. There was some drama around finding a way to replace the clogged filters with new ones so the air in the space capsule would not become toxic. This cleaning of the air was vital to the lives of the astronauts; they would not have survived without the cleaning filters removing the toxic CO2 from the air.

I think this is a helpful illustration of what God’s love can do for us. The love of God acts as a filter through which we view and understand all that takes place around us. Without the filter, I’m not sure if survival is possible, but if it is, it isn’t much of a life worth living. Just as the CO2 filters were vital for the astronauts, so is the filter of God’s love vital for us.

Life can be hard. Life can be overwhelming. Life can at times kick you in the teeth. Without a filter to help us deal with some of these circumstances, the toxicity of our environment can reach a point where it becomes unbearable.

Now you really need to hear this next part. When we view the love of God from a human perspective, it doesn’t do its job very well as a filter. As a matter of fact, I think it makes it worse. A recent example of this came to my attention last week. A prominent conservative theologian was asked how God could allow something like the school shooting in Florida to take place; the answer was that since we have removed God from our schools, then God, “being the gentleman he is” has backed away. This has created a void that is now filled with the evil shooter.

I’m sorry, but this just is not helpful. It is toxic and it creates an image of God that is not only inaccurate, but also equally as evil as the Florida school shooter.

The two words we are looking at today are vital and vulnerable. We heard about how my clergy friend found herself in a vulnerable position when she reached out in love to try to help Holly. We have also talked about how the filtering of our environment is vital to ensure our survival.

The text I read at the beginning of this message speaks to both of these ideas. The text opens in verse 5 by saying that we should have the same mind as Jesus. In other words, the same filters that Jesus had in place in his mind that allowed him to interpret his circumstances a certain way, should be the same filters that we have in place in our minds. We are to view the world and our circumstances in the same way that Jesus did.

If we have the same filters in place that Jesus did, does that mean everything will always work out and life will be easy?

Keep reading. The text goes on to talk about humility and obedience; Even death by execution on a cross. No, having the same mind as Jesus doesn’t mean life will be easy. What it does mean is that perhaps you have the opportunity to understand life from a new perspective. It also means that you understand that if you pursue a life of love, as Jesus did, that life will place you in a vulnerable position at times. Just like my clergy colleague found herself in a vulnerable position when trying to help Holly.

Make no mistake. It wasn’t evil that put Jesus on the cross. It wasn’t some pre-ordained grand plan from God the Father either. What put Jesus on the cross was love and love alone. Because love is vital, and love is also vulnerable.

And that is food for thought. Amen.