Sunday, March 26, 2023

Jonny Rashid: Who are the least of these?

Jesus reveals social justice priorities of God's realm
Matthew: Jesus the Revealer
Psalm 98:7-9; 25:31-46

Jonny Rashid is a pastor, author, speaker and podcaster from Philadelphia, PA. Author of Jesus Takes a Side, Embracing the Political Demands of the Gospel published by MennoMedia (Herald Press) in 2022, Rashid studied journalism, education and history at Temple University and completed his masters of divinity at Palmer Theological Seminary.

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Sunday, March 19, 2023

Phil Kniss: Navigating the curve

LENT 4: Jesus reveals life in the meantime in God's realm
Matthew 25:1-13

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Today is another fascinating parable of Jesus
that makes for an interesting story on its own, in the abstract,
but is so much richer, and truer, and more useful to us,
when we read it in its actual context—
the context of Matthew’s narrative,
and the context of Matthew’s community in Antioch.

So let’s read it that way—this story about 10 bridesmaids,
5 foolish and 5 wise.
And let’s start with the context of Matthew’s written narrative—
where it shows up in the Gospel,
why it shows up in that spot,
and why it shows up at all . . .
because, incidentally, Matthew is the only one to tell the story.

Turn back one chapter and we have a clue.
All of chapter 24 is about the end of the age, so to speak.

Speaking to his disciples,
Jesus predicts the destruction of Jerusalem,
and increasing warfare among nations,
With it will come suffering and distress, he says.
Torture, martyrdom, betrayal, false prophets, lawlessness.
He calls all this the beginning of the “birthpangs” of the new age.
Then, in 24:32, Jesus says “take a lesson from the fig tree.”
After a dark cold winter,
the branch gets tender and leaves start to push out
and you know spring and summer is on its way.
That is, the time when Messiah will set the world right,
and make the evildoers pay.

Jesus ends that chapter
with a series of short parables about being ready, or not.
He compared the end of the age to the age of Noah,
where people were not expecting the end,
and so lived as if there was nothing to lose.
Some will be ready, and some will not.
Then Jesus compares the end to the example of a thief in the night.
Always be ready and awake,
so the thief won’t catch you unawares.
Finally, he tells a short parable about
a master who went away for an undetermined amount of time,
and put a servant in charge as caretaker.
The expectation is that the servant will live every day,
as if that was the day the master returned,
so he would find his household in good shape.
But if the servant assumed the return would be delayed,
he might mistreat his fellow servants,
trash the house,
get drunk,
and if the master returned with all that going on,
it would be bad news for everyone.

Then immediately after those stories in Matthew 24,
Jesus tells the next one—today’s story about
the wise and foolish bridesmaids.
The wait was a lot longer than they expected.
Half of them were ready, in case the wait was long.
Half of them were not.

This story is obviously connected to the preceding ones,
and must be read in their light.

So why all this attention to the end times in Matthew?
Because that question was front and center in Matthew’s community.
It was on everyone’s mind.
And what you thought about that question
had immediate, real-life, social, financial,
and political ramifications.
Matthew couldn’t NOT write about the return of the Messiah.

Understanding why this question was urgent for Matthew,
and entering into Matthew’s social and religious context,
can guard us from making the interpretive mistakes
that result in strange and dangerous Christian movements
obsessed about the end-times,
that feed on fears of God’s judgement,
and promise escape from this world.

We have that in our Mennonite history, of course.
Some of us recently read Sofia Samatar’s The White Mosque,
telling of a Mennonite trek to central Asia in the 1800s,
where Claus Epp, Jr. predicted Christ would return.

But there are many other, less extreme, less colorful,
but equally ill-informed ways of reading scripture,
that spawned the Left Behind craze of the 1990s
and the 1970s movement inspired by Hal Lindsey,
that produced books and movies like Thief in the Night.
That film was shown in the Mennonite church of my childhood,
to bring wayward adults to repentance,
and to terrorize innocent adolescents like me
into making a decision for Christ,
so we could be assured of escape from this evil world.

I believe it’s no accident that movement coincided
with all the social upheaval in our country in the 60s and 70s.
Focusing on prophecy about Jesus coming back any day
distracted us from working at social change now,
like getting worked up about poverty, civil rights,
or the Vietnam War.
All that didn’t matter.
We would soon be whisked away to heaven.

So, as a guard against misusing scripture again today,
let’s look at the context of this parable.

So here is a quick review
of how the early church came to believe in
the “near parou-SI-a” of Christ.

ParouSIa is just a Greek word that shows up in our Bible
4 times in the Gospel of Matthew (all in chapter 24)
and another 10-15 times in the Epistles.
It’s usually translated “coming” or “appearance.”
So, “near parouSIa” is the belief that when Jesus told his disciples
he would return for them in the clouds,
they took that to mean a matter of days, weeks, or months.
The resurrection was evidence to them that the hope
of a political deliverance from Rome wasn’t over.
It didn’t end on the cross.
Instead, Jesus would return with the angels of heaven,
and take vengeance on those evildoers.
He would sit on David’s throne in Jerusalem, as expected,
and execute justice and judgement
against Herod and Caesar and everyone responsible
for his crucifixion.
The real world, here and now, would be made right—
for the Jews, and for everyone else.

I think that’s a fairly accurate summary
of what the first Jesus followers thought “salvation” meant.
But that definition of salvation only worked
if they thought Jesus’ return was very soon,
before winter turned to spring and summer.

But then life unfolded in a way they hadn’t expected.
There was a curve in road they didn’t see coming.
Decades passed.
And Jesus still had not come back for his political revenge.
The bridegroom was late.
And the conflict between Rome and Judea got even worse.
Life got harder for them.
It culminated, ultimately,
in the siege of Jerusalem of 70 A.D.
when Rome laid waste to their city and temple,
a killed a million of the Jews.

So during this time,
there was an evolution of thought.
Their theology shifted.
You can actually see this shift happening
in the different writings of the New Testament.

The radical actions of Christians selling everything,
moving into community and abolishing private property,
was not done for some abstract long-term philosophical reason.
It was a short-term survival strategy that made common sense,
for people who had suddenly lost their jobs and economic security.
When the world turned against them,
they had to turn to each other, in order to eat and live.

Books have been written about the early church,
and how they evolved from expecting Jesus to return very soon,
for the political salvation of the Jewish people,
to a longer view, where salvation by the Messiah
was less about Israel, or any one nation,
and more about putting the whole world back on course,
bringing both spiritual reconciliation to God,
and social reconciliation for all, in a wide world of shalom.

After the temple was destroyed, and Jerusalem lay in ruins,
and Gentile believers started coming into the church,
well, that fundamentally changed the lives
of Christians in Antioch—Matthew’s community—
and everywhere the church was growing.
They developed a broader understanding
of what Messiah’s agenda was.
They let go of their belief that Jesus was soon coming back
to set up a new political dynasty in Jerusalem.
In other words, they encountered a major curve in the road.
And they navigated that curve.

Some more successfully than others, of course.
Because conflict in the church, intense conflict,
continued for a very long time,
as they tried to sort out what the Messiah’s agenda really was.
And how Jews and Gentiles fit into that.

See, for the early church,
what you believed about Jesus,
and how and when he might be returning,
had major practical and ethical implications.

It made a difference how invested you were
in the community where you actually lived.
If you were a Jewish Christian in Antioch,
and you were just biding your time
until Jesus the political Savior came back and punished the Empire,
you would have little motivation
to work for the shalom of your city,
or to care about the well-being of your Gentile neighbors,
or about your Jewish neighbors who didn’t follow Jesus,
and who no longer worshiped with you.
For that matter, you had little motivation to minister to anyone
who was poor or hungry or threatened,
if they weren’t in your tribe of believers.

But if you took the long view, and broad view,
of Jesus’ saving agenda,
then you lived as if every relationship mattered.
You lived as if the bridegroom could show up at any moment,
or millenia from now.

It seems to me, friends,
that in this way, the parable of the 5 wise and 5 foolish virgins,
even though it was aimed directly at Antiochan Christians
after 70 A.D.,
is also aimed at us.
Its message today, is just as potent.

Yes, in a way, Messiah has already come and been among us,
and already showed us the way to live.
And in another way, the Messiah is among us now,
through the Spirit that is at work in each other.
But just as importantly, we continue to wait for Messiah.
The cosmic saving mission of God through the Messiah
is not yet fulfilled or accomplished.
Messiah is late in coming.
And there is work to be done . . . while we wait.
How we live, every day, matters while we wait.
We need, as the old spiritual tells us, 
to “keep our lamps trimmed and burning.
And “children, don’t get weary,
the time is drawing nigh.”

Because life does not unfold for us exactly as we expect.
There are surprises—some joyful, some deeply painful.

The road of following Jesus today
still has unexpected curves.
We need to stay alert.
Keep our eyes on the road.
And be ready for what we weren’t expecting.

We’re not alone on the road.
There are others with us to help us navigate the curves.
But neither can we afford to be complacent.
God is in it for the salvation of the world,
and has chosen us as partners in that work.
So the stakes are high.
But when we see the curve, and navigate it with God,
the rewards are great.

Let us join in a prayer of confession.
one O God, we didn’t see you coming.
Forgive us our unreadiness.
all Open our eyes to your coming. Lord have mercy.
one We thought we knew your plans.
We thought we knew our duties.
But there came a curve.
Life did not unfold as we expected.
We did not see you in the curve.
Forgive us our unreadiness.
all Open our eyes to your coming. Lord have mercy.
one God the Patient One waits on us,
without coercion or compulsion,
forgives us and welcomes us to the feast.

—Phil Kniss, March 19, 2023

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Sunday, March 12, 2023

Phil Kniss: The terrible parable

Lent 3: Jesus reveals the costly grace of God’s realm
Matthew 22:1-14

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Today’s parable is a perfect example of why we need to consider
context when approaching scripture.
It’s dangerous NOT to.
It can lead not only to faulty interpretation,
but to tragic real-life outcomes.

Take Matthew’s version of the parable of the wedding banquet,
pull it out of its narrative context and its political context,
read it as an isolated parable,
and you will find one of the strangest, and most violent,
and most off-putting stories of Jesus in the Gospels.
Out of context, it’s a terrible parable.

When reading it out of context,
people looking for justification of violence, can find it here.
And well-meaning gentle readers
will try to make it tamer than what it actually is.
They will bend over double
to find a non-violent way to read it.
But they will fail, because it can’t be done.
Or, they will totally avoid it,
and turn instead to Luke’s version of the Great Banquet story.
That one has no violence.
The worst that happened in Luke,
is some people missed out on a fine banquet.
Nobody got tortured and killed.
No cities got burned.
And no one, due to wearing the wrong outfit
got bound hand and foot, and thrown into the outer darkness,
where there was weeping and gnashing of teeth.

I know if I was told to preach a banquet parable,
and was given a choice between Matthew 22 and Luke 14,
I would not be preaching from today’s Gospel.
But today I don’t have a choice.
Thanks a lot, Narrative Lectionary!
No, really! Thank you.
Because I have had to wrestle honestly with this story
to preach from this text for the . . . (count on fingers)
first time . . . ever.

Okay, let’s review the basic elements of this terrible parable.
The king’s son, the prince and heir to the throne we assume,
was getting married, and that’s a big deal.
The king sent his servants out with invites
to everyone who deserved to be at the royal wedding banquet.
Listen, they are being invited to dine with their future king.
But every last one refused, it tells us in v. 3.

So the servants went out again, to do a better sell-job, v. 4.
They said, look, there’s going to be food galore!
Freshly-butchered local beef.
Fattened calves. The works! It’ll be great!

This time, half the invitees laughed in the face of the servants,
and went back to work on their farm, or place of business.
The other half responded in a violent rage,
first torturing, then killing the innocent messengers.

In retribution, the king marshalled his army,
killed all the people who refused his invitation,
and then burned their city to the ground.

And then they went on with their merry banquet.
Inviting everyone they could still find . . . alive—
good and bad—Matthew says, v. 10.
And they filled the hall.

But when the king walked in,
he saw one guest not wearing the proper wedding robe,
and when confronted, the man had no answer,
so the king had him bound hand and foot,
outer darkness, weeping, teeth-gnashing, all that.

Cool story, huh?
This parable is not just terrible. It’s unbearable.

So, this is the Gospel of Matthew.
Where is the Gospel word here?
Where is the good news?

You can see what I mean,
it’s pretty hard to ignore the violence,
and pretend this story is only about the wonderful news
that all are invited to the great banquet—
every race and nation.

Nope. Sorry. That’s the way Luke tells the story.
Matthew clearly has a different agenda in mind
in repeating Jesus’ story in his Gospel.

There is some serious judgment going on here.

Which brings us again to the context,
to which we keep circling back in this series.
We are working within the widely-held scholarly view
that the Gospel of Matthew was written first
for the community of Jewish Jesus followers in Antioch,
around 70 AD, near the time when Caesar’s army
laid siege and laid waste to their holy city of Jerusalem,
leaving the temple in a pile of rubble,
and killing up to one million Jewish people.

So stop and think about that for a minute.
You and your family are of a race and a religion
that the Empire is trying to crush, to obliterate.
This is the Empire that, just a few years ago,
succeeded in destroying
every treasured and holy place of your people,
and massacred great numbers of your own relatives—
aunts, uncles, cousins—
the very people you used to look forward to visiting,
and eating at their tables,
and sleeping in their homes,
every time you went to Jerusalem for Passover.
They are now dead.
And the temple doesn’t exist.

This is the Empire that rules Antioch, your home town.
Most of your neighbors are loyal and supportive
Roman citizens of this Empire.
To make matters even worse,
the only people in town you could actually talk to
about your trauma and loss and continuing fears
are your fellow Jews.
And your Jewish community has divided against itself,
because of the growing movement
of those, like you, who say Jesus was the Messiah.
That division has hardened, on both sides,
to the point you are no longer part of a movement within,
but a group separated from the synagogue.

YOU . . . are the ones to whom Matthew is writing the Gospel of Jesus.

Friends, understanding that context makes all the difference.
It puts the violence in this parable into some perspective.
A story of a king’s army killing the enemy and burning their cities,
is not just a terrible parable—it is lived reality.
The Antiochan Christians, and their loved ones,
have been at the sharp end of the King’s sword.

It is a mistake to read this parable as if Matthew wants all people,
everywhere, and at all times,
to picture God in heaven as violent and vengeful and bloodthirsty.
That might seem like the straightest reading of this story.
But we live in relative peace and freedom,
We experience faith as a pleasant add-on to life,
instead of central to an identity that might get us killed.

Matthew’s readers were in a unique position to hear this story,
and to see the king as a symbol of justice
against all who had a hand in getting Jesus killed,
and who continue to oppress them today.

The church in Antioch could hear this parable,
and see themselves, finally,
as not just a helpless and hapless minority community,
but as the unlikely people who have just been invited
to the King’s Table to dine in luxury.
That tables have been turned.
Those who rejected Jesus,
or stood in the way of Jesus,
or, like the Roman Empire, crucified Jesus—
have had the tables turned on them.
They are missing out on the meal.
They have been consigned to the outer darkness.

But those who accepted the invitation
to the Messianic wedding banquet—
they are . . . finally . . . safe, secure, well-fed.

This is, in fact, a good news story for people of faith
who have experienced oppression
who have been silenced,
who have been pushed away from the table . . .
but are now the honored guests at the king’s table.

Okay . . . But then, what about this unfortunate guest
who came to the banquet in the wrong clothes?

Like the other parts of this story,
it’s a metaphor.
It’s not meant to teach us how to treat our guests.

Again, put yourself in the shoes of Antiochan Christians.
You would have been well aware
of the apostle Paul’s life and letters.
Paul spent time with you there in Antioch.
And Paul’s letters came earlier
than the compiling of this Gospel.
So by the time you heard this parable for the first time,
you already knew all about Paul’s talk of
clothing yourselves in Christ.
And you would have been quite familiar
with the practice of caution and secrecy
that Christians in the Empire adopted to survive.
As a threatened community,
you always had to be on the lookout for infiltrators,
maybe Roman spies, or your own townspeople,
people who pretended to be one of you,
to gather intelligence to be used against you.
So you had to develop secret symbols, like the shape of the fish,
or other means of telling true disciples from false.

So this story tells about a guest who came without proper attire.
You’d get this metaphor without having it explained to you.
Here is someone only pretending to be on the side
of those sitting at the Messianic banquet.
But he is not actually clothed in Christ.
And he was found out.
And had no credible answer for himself.
And the bouncer threw him out, rightly so.

You see,
we usually read this parable from our place of comfort and security,
and as people who tend to see faith
as something that’s convenient for us,
that enhances our social connections,
rather than as something that endangers us,
or turns our lives upside down.

When we read this story properly,
it can still be good news for us all,
that is, if we take our faith seriously.

It tells us
that our trust in Jesus is worth something!
It’s worth investing in,
worth taking risks for,
worth taking unpopular stands for,
worth even dying for, if it ever came to that.

It tells us that the God of justice will fight for us,
and for others whose lives are threatened.
We need not cower in the shadows.
We can live in the light of Jesus.

And it proclaims the good news, after all,
that everyone—everyone—who says yes to God’s broad invitation
is welcome at the banquet,
when they come in good faith.

Thanks be to God.

In response, let’s read a confession together in unison.
It will be on the screens, as well as in Voices Together, 908.

It’s a prayer written by Jan Richardson,
expressing our trust in a God who will work with us,
even those caught in a quagmire of violence,
in a world that is broken and frayed.

It’s both a prayer for God to intervene with justice and healing,
as well as a statement of confidence that God will do just that.

Let’s read it in unison, poetically, with an ever-so-slight pause
at the end of each line.

From all that is broken,
let there be beauty.
From what is torn, jagged,
ripped, frayed,
let there be
not just mendings
but meetings unimagined.
May the God in whom
nothing is wasted
gather up every scrap,
every shred and shard,
and make of them
new paths,
Jan Richardson (USA), © 2010

—Phil Kniss, March 11, 2023

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Sunday, March 5, 2023

Paula Stoltzfus: God's Economy of Grace

Jesus reveals the upside-down realm of God
Matthew: Jesus the Revealer
Psalm 16: 5-8; Matthew 20: 1-16

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I don’t know about you but depending on where my own barometer of justice is on a given day, and whether I’m listening either with my head or heart, I have varied responses to this story.  I can vacillate from bafflement to anger to awe.

But first, let’s remind ourselves that this book, the Gospel of Matthew was written to the Jewish community in Antioch around 70AD.  The Jesus followers within the Jewish community of Antioch were facing great complexity.  They would have grappling with the reality that the Romans destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem, just south of Antioch.  They also were trying to figure out life together, between those who believed Jesus was the Messiah and those who did not.  Fractures were developing in their community of faith. If you had been there you may have heard conversations or rather debates of who was in God’s favor.

In the beginning part of the Gospel of Matthew there was a case being made to prove to the community that Jesus was the Messiah. Last week and this we are interacting with Jesus’ teachings which describe God’s kingdom which is upside-down from what the community was practicing.

“The first shall be last and the last shall be first,” is the last sentence of our Gospel reading today, which depicts this upside-down message. It is not only here but is also at the end of the story that precedes this one.

If you have your Bibles you can peek right before this text and see the story of the Rich Young Man who comes to Jesus and directly asks what will get him eternal life?  Jesus ultimately says, sell all your possessions and follow me.  It was hard for this man to follow through with Jesus’ invitation and he went away grieving.  

Jesus goes on to describe a new kind of economy where possessions and riches are not valued as highly as following Jesus’ ways. And so we hear in the last sentence, “but many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.”

Jesus proceeds to paint a picture, in our text today, of the kingdom of heaven where God is the landowner, hiring out work. It reveals God’s approach to God’s economy operating on grace, where everyone is given the same regardless of the number of hours worked.

It is easy to enter through the mind’s eye in which the sense of injustice is present. For this business model doesn’t calculate evenly. The business plan is not balanced and perhaps fringes on reckless. So it quickly becomes obvious that the landowner/God is not interested in it appearing fair or even responsible.

But this story is as much about God as it is in how it reveals our human predicament. We want order in life and in that order there is to be fairness.  People have built ideas of what makes one more valued over another, whether it is money, race, gender, sexuality, age, or skill set.  Sometimes it is based on perceived effort or expectation.

Our for order comes with the greatest of intentions (I hope) and indeed is needed in some instances, but falters in God’s economy.   

God’s economy is completely different. It works on different commodities, that of grace and love.  It also works from the platform of abundance. Everyone is viewed and treated the same. The kingdom of God honors everyone!

Unlike the community in Antioch (and perhaps our own world today), the accumulation of wealth is not what affords one into God’s kingdom.  The hardest worker who puts in the greatest number of hours is not what gets a valued member’s pass. Years of sacrificial service doesn’t get one first in line. The correct genealogy won’t give one a free pass into God’s kingdom.

Does it make you a little uncomfortable?  It will most of us.  I’ve worked really hard to do the right things in life, be responsible, learn and grow to be a valued member of the church and society. Many of you have too. Is that not worth anything?

It is a truth we need to face that no one of us is worthier, more righteous, or more deserving than anyone else.

In order to even begin to understand this, it calls us to dig into the story at a deeper soul level. It cannot be contained solely in our heads. This extravagant generosity of grace and love goes beyond what we can comprehend unless…unless we have personally received a measure of this generosity of grace.

It is in receiving grace (especially when undeserved) that we can begin to appreciate the gift and freedom of God's economy.

I happened to listen to a Brene Brown podcast this past week in which, unbeknownst to me, she opened with this parable. In the conversation the question was raised, how would we, the readers, feel if we knew the workers were all doing the best that they could? Because she too was recognizing that viewing the parable from our head was not allowing the deeper reflection.

This question begins to view the workers through the lenses of grace.

What if the worker hired at midday didn’t make it to the first hiring because they were helping their neighbor with a farm chore because the neighbor was sick?

What if the worker hired at the end of the day was taking care of their dying loved one and had a hard time getting out the door?

What if all the workers that were hired at varying points of the day were doing the best that they could with the circumstances around them?

It is all too easy to pass judgment on what we perceive but do not know. It is easy to get angry when life is unfair.  It is easy to justify holding resentment when others have an easier road than we ourselves do.

These are all real temptations.

What if we embraced Jesus’ depiction of grace in the kingdom?

  • A place where you are honored for who you are and what you bring, just as you are. 
  • A place where you are believed that you are doing the best that you can with what you have. 
  • A place where you trust that others are doing the best that they can with what they have.

We don’t know everyone’s story, family, background, and experience.  I have been a part of two seminars within the last 6 months that have identified that nearly half of children and around 70% of adults have experienced some kind of trauma in their lives.  And one of the seminars, the pandemic itself was named as a potential prolonged trauma, depending on one’s previous history.  

Our response in the church often has been to try harder, have more faith, or pray harder and longer, all which perhaps come from a noble place, but an approach that tends to shame, blame, and guilt ourselves and others.

God seems to have another way, that of grace. A way of meeting each of us by accepting who we are with what we have. God meets us with grace that accepts that we are doing the best that we can at any given moment.

What a gift. It is our choice to be present, orient ourselves to God, self reflect, and receive this gift.

It is in this spirit that you are invited to enter into communion today, confessing and acknowledging that we come as we are and not whom we think we should be. We come as Jesus receives us, doing the best we can. God’s grace is plentiful and for all.

Join me in prayer:

God of mystery and wonder, at this and every table, you dissolve the distance between the ordinary and the holy; you break the barrier separating the common and the sacred.  We thank you for this thin palace, this holy space, this well of grace. Amen                             (VT 948)

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