• The NFL and the unfair vineyard owner

    Matthew 20:1-16

    If there is a demonic force at work in American society, it is the sin of envy. Envy? Not greed, not racism? Yes. Envy is more powerful than either greed or racism, because it is their source.

    Envy is more than just wanting what someone else has. It’s the feeling that their having it in the first place is illegitimate, that their blessings diminish what you have. Envy is a cancer that eats the soul.

    People have been asking rhetorically why Trump attacks black athletes and other African-Americans who defy him. It’s envy. It’s not that he wants their athletic prowess or success. It’s that he thinks they don’t deserve that success. It’s that Trump thinks a successful black man cheapens what he, Trump, has accomplished in his life (such as it is). Because in his mind, of course, blacks (and Hispanics, and women and…) are lazy and unproductive cheats gaming the system. So to hear them demand respect, well, that must just make his blood boil. They’re undeserving and ungrateful!

    Trump isn’t the only one, of course. Envy is the source of rural and suburban white complaints about “those people” in the cities. They’re cutting in line, and it diminishes what we’ve done through the sweat of our brows! Envy is also the source of those who get so riled up over protests at football games. Those pampered athletes have never made a sacrifice in their lives, not like our brave soldiers and sailors! (As I’ve said before, there’s an authoritarian Cult of Sacrifice in our nation using cops and veterans to keep people in their place.)

    None of this is new. It’s exactly what Jesus is talking about in his parable of laborers in the vineyard. Understand, the guys he’s talking about are all poor. They don’t have their own farms to attend, so they work at somebody else’s. They get up before dawn to make their arrangements, then work—hard, manual labor—all day until the hot sun goes down.

    You think they’re pissed off when the guys working only one hour get the same pay? You’re damn right they are! You think you’d be pissed off when the guys working only one hour get the same pay? You’re damn right you would be! All the more so since the jerks who worked the least get paid first. Those who worked longest get their noses rubbed in it. Grace (because that is what we’re talking about, really) is obnoxious. So is God’s generosity.

    Because of course this is no ordinary landowner we’re talking about. What owner does the hiring himself, instead of sending a servant? As well, the “vineyard” was a common image for Israel in those days, and the hiring additional laborers suggests it’s harvest time.

    So the landowner has a point when he says to one of the laborers, “Friend, I did you no wrong.” The owner and the worker settled on a fair day’s wages, and the owner paid up promptly. Fair is fair. If the landowner should choose to piss away his money on slobs who only work an hour in the day, that’s his business, nobody else.

    And thank God he does, because we’re all recipients of his screwball economics. Psalm 145:9 says, “The Lord is good to all, and his compassion is over all that he has made.” Or as Matthew says earlier, “God makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.” Ain’t none of us alive solely by our own efforts, ain’t none of us making ends meet or more only by our own hard work. We all get lucky at some point, or in Christian terms, we are all blessed by the grace of God. And none of us deserve it, because none of us are God’s equals. It’s a free gift out of God’s love for the world.

    So none of us have any business getting envious. It’s like a baby crying foul because his mother also breast-feeds his brother. We are called to live in gratitude and the sure knowledge that there is enough and more than enough to go around.

    It irritates the hell out of me to see Trump flags hanging around town, or Blue Lives Matter flags, or Ol’ Dixie on some pickup truck. But I never begrudge their right to protest, to be obnoxious. It’s a free country, and there’s enough free speech to go around. (Remind me sometime to grab pictures from the neighbor’s yard who draws swastikas on flags because America tolerates abortion.) But of course, if your ego is weak, and your sense of self is fragile because you know at heart your accomplishments are illegitimate…Well then, you might lash out, too.

    But you, you live with gratefulness, with thanksgiving for what you have, not envy at what somebody else has. You live knowing that when the kingdom comes, the last shall be first, and the first last. We might not be able to do much about that awful man in the White House, but we can look to a better day that has been promised us. Amen.

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  • Do all the good you can, for all the people you can, in all the ways you can, as long as ever you can.

    Let me open up some scripture to you (it will be relevant, promise). I preached on Romans 12:1-8 this morning.

    The context matters here: Paul has spent much of the preceding eleven chapters sketching out his theology for a congregation that didn’t know him. This is preparatory for a planned visit so he can raise funds to expand his mission into Spain. So having introduced himself and his thought, in chapter 12, he’s making the transition to: so what? How does any of this change lives?

    Paul starts with an exhortation to the Roman congregation: “Present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God.” This is, not to put too fine a point on it, ballsy. Remember, he’s writing to people in the capital, the very heart of the empire. And the empire requires sacrifice to its gods—including the emperor—at the cost of life for refusal. Disregard the haters and losers, he says. Make the real sacrifice: lay your body down for God in Christ. The nerve of some people!

    But—and this is a very important but!—Roman sacrifice was understood explicitly in terms of winners and losers. It was a domination game. Winners made sacrifices, losers got sacrificed. This kept the world properly ordered. And Paul just stands that on its head. Don’t be the dominant winner, he says. Be the loser. Be the sacrifice, like Jesus was the sacrifice. All of this, says Paul, is “spiritual” worship, or logical worship—the word is actually logikē in the Greek—the rational result of worship. If you have faith in the God of Christ, this is where it leads you: to laying down your life for the good of others.

    It’s more than just getting yourself killed, of course. Paul says: don’t get uppity about it, but you all have gifts and talents, given by God for the betterment of the people of God. We don’t all have the same gifts or talents, and that’s a good thing. We all have different roles, and different strengths to bring to them.

    Then Paul rattles off a list of gifts: prophecy (interpreting God’s will), ministry, teaching, exhortation (coaching, more or less), giving, leading, compassion. Don’t worry if you don’t have any of these gifts. There are others. Paul’s just giving a bunch of “for instances.”

    Point is, we all have some way to build up the community, and it’s up to us to figure out what that is, and start using it. If you’ve ever had developmentally disabled folks in worship with you, you know that even just a smile can be a gift. I’ve know many people who could “only” give the church the gift of cutting grass or sweeping up or putting hymnals away. It’s all good.

    So I told the congregation: find what you’re good at and do it. Tell others what their gifts are. Accept the compliment when it’s given. Because God wants:

    • All of your hearts.
    • All of your minds.
    • All of your spirits.
    • All of your bodies. Not for himself, but for the good of the community, because God also gives all of these away to the beloved children of God.

    So now, here’s the relevant part, the part you’ve been waiting for.

    You ever wonder why Trump seems so fershlugginer incompetent? He, after all, is a baptized Christian. Shouldn’t he have received his share of gifts and talents? Well, yes. But remember, those are gifts and talents to be used to build up the body of Christ. The gifts aren’t ours, and they’re not reason for us to boast. In fact, boasting is one way to know the gift isn’t from God. So is using the gift for your own benefit, rather than that of others. This is precisely where Trump fails.

    Because he is so broken, such a damaged and self-serving person, there is never any thought about using what he’s been given for others. He didn’t go into business to help people, he went into it to get rich, to get praised, and to get laid, not necessarily in that order. Trump’s one constant throughout his life is the dominance game: it’s always zero-sum with this guy. I win, you lose. He didn’t go into the presidency with any thought of service or making his supporters’ lives better. He could give two shits. He cares even less about helping people who are—oh, I don’t know—being drowned in a catastrophic flood? They’re an abstraction. It is always and ever will be about his own domination of the world around him. He wouldn’t know from sacrifice.

    The result of this brokenness is that any gift, any talent, any tiniest drop of goodness that he might have been given—they’re all concealed, unused. You can’t be good at anything if you’re too short-sighted and insecure to cooperate with others. That’s Trump.

    No, if anything, Trump’s powers are demonic, originating the organized chaos that arises in opposition to God’s plan of love, because the demonic is blind, unreasoning, unthinking except insofar as what this has to do for me. To paraphrase that great prophet Declan McManus, Trump wants what no one can: he wants to know the names of all those he’s better than.

    That’s the voice of evil. As long it has possession of him, Trump’s bound to be a failure, because he can’t use his God-given gifts. We, our nation, God help us, put that in charge of the government. All those Republicans thought they were getting an alpha dog leader, but they didn’t realize he would hump their legs, too. America did not use its sober judgment, as Paul might say. It did not give logical worship or discern the will of God. It putzed.

    We’re experiencing the judgment for that failure right now. “Good luck!” he says, as a city drowns.

    Yet, there is good news, which is you still have gifts and talents, and the means to use them for good of your community. And having been given them, you should use them. You ought, for you can.

    • You can donate to relief efforts for Houston. Suggested agencies are floating around. (Church groups typically give 100% to relief, no overhead or management fees.)
    • You can help people register to vote. You can drive them to the polls.
    • You can form a community of support for vulnerable people.
    • You can meet people who are deeply different than you, and listen to them.
    • In a thousand and one ways, you can resist the demonic forces that divide us one from another and focus us on our wants and desires.
    • You can go to town hall meetings. You can write letters to the editor. You can talk to your neighbors. (Comforting the widower next door is as surely a political act as anything I do on Twitter.)
    • You can discern the will of God, and interpret it for those who will listen. You can minister to the needs of the people.
    • You can teach people the truth, and what is right and wrong. You can coach them to do more and better.
    • You can give and give and give, because it really is true: you can’t take it with you.
    • You can lead with diligence and expect other leaders [cough cough] to do the same.
    • If nothing else, you can be Little Miss Sunshine, a ray of cheerfulness and compassion.

    Anyway, those are just examples. If you’ve got other ideas for how to use gifts and talents, feel free to drop them in a response. End of. Go and do likewise. Make a real sacrifice. Amen.

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  • Rahab was a badass tbh

    Today is International Women’s Day. In honor of that celebration, I invite you to consider these women from the Bible. I’ll name twenty, but believe you me, there are plenty more I have to leave out so as not to bore you to death.

    1. Eve, who has been blamed often for the original sin, as if that fathead Adam weren’t standing right there next to her when it happened. But she was a co-worker in the Garden, and a symbol of the primal wholeness between the sexes.
    2. Sarah, Abraham’s wife, who delighted to think she would “know pleasure” again in old age, and who laughed at God and got away with it.(Can you imagine somebody telling God straight up, “Uh, no, I didn’t laugh at you?”)
    3. Hagar, Sarah’s handmaiden (i.e., slave), used by Abraham to produce an heir and then sent away into the desert by Sarah’s jealousy.
    4. Tamar the widow, whose brother-in-law Onan spilled his seed rather give her an heir to support her in old age. Tamar took matters into her own hands, slept with her father-in-law, narrowly escaped execution for her “harlotry…“…and became a named ancestor of Jesus.
    5. The midwives of Egypt who defy Pharaoh’s genocidal order to kill male Hebrew infants.
    6. Moses’ mother, who in hope refused to kill him outright and instead sent him floating down the Nile.
    7. Pharaoh’s daughter, who subverted her old man and raised Moses as her own, only to have him reject the palace as an adult.
    8. Miriam, Moses’ sister, a prophet in her own right, and a political operator not afraid to challenge Moses’ power among the Israelites.
    9. Deborah the fair judge, who overcame tribal rivalry and led the Israelites to military victory.
    10. Ruth, who stayed with her mother-in-law Naomi through famine, rejecting the safety of going home to her own people to provide for her family.
    11. Esther saved the Jews of Persia from slaughter and got the rat bastard Haman hanged on his own gallows. (Esther is the only book in the Bible not to mention God, by the way.)
    12. Now, moving to the New Testament, Mary, the very-young woman who was unafraid to accept a risky mission from God, who didn’t bother to consult with a male relative before she said Yes, who didn’t mind challenging her son, but who stayed with him when his friends deserted him for fear of their own lives and watched him die a violent and disgraceful death, who was a prophet, received the gift of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost, and whose memory was treasured by the early church.
    13. The unnamed woman with the hemorrhage (i.e., an uncontrolled menstrual bleed) who didn’t hesitate to touch Jesus and be healed by him.
    14. The Syro-Phoenician woman, desperate to have her child healed, who gives a smart answer to Jesus’ smart remark. (“It is not right to take the children’s bread and feed it to the dogs,” he says, meaning to help someone who is not Jewish. “Yes,” she says, “but even the puppies can eat the crumbs from the table.”)
    15. The Samaritan woman, ostracized in her community, who listens to Jesus’ teaching, and boldly spreads the word about him.
    16. The Forgiven Woman, saved from execution by Jesus, offered God’s forgiveness and Jesus’ compassion.
    17. Mary Magdalene, often slandered as a prostitute, one of Jesus’ first and most loyal disciples, who preaches the first Christian sermon. (“The Lord is risen,” she tells the disciples on Easter morning. Pfft, they say. Typical men.)
    18. Martha and Mary, one who serves and one who listens, who may represent the stable communities of the early church (Martha) who provided hospitality to itinerant, mendicant preachers and apostles (Mary).
    19. Lydia, the “dealer in purple cloth,” who Paul calls a co-worker, who helped found the church in Philippi.
    20. And last but not least, Phoebe, called a “deacon” by Paul, who brings his letter to the Roman community to another town, showing that women were early, active, and equal leaders in the church.

    I can’t do these women justice here. Some of them have had entire books written on them. In fact, we can’t do justice at all by the women of the Bible. They were hurt, raped, killed, oppressed in too many ways to mention.

    But we see throughout scripture women unafraid to defy the norms of their day, to work for their communities and on their own behalf. We see women who set the pattern for and far exceed the faithfulness of the men and who change the course of salvation history itself. No women? No Moses. No Mary? No Jesus.

    Whatever you think of the treatment of women in scripture or the church, I invite you to consider how different each would be without them. God is unequivocal even when the people aren’t: women are beloved, deserving, and equal children of God. The end. Whatever you think of the treatment of women in scripture or the church, I invite you to consider how different each would be without them. God is unequivocal even when the people aren’t: women are beloved, deserving, and equal children of God. The end.

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  • Ice Shoves

    frozen ice at Lakeside Park

    So there are these things called ice shoves, which are more exactly what they sound like than you might think: wind or current shoves a sheet of ice off a lake or ocean up on shore. This is a thing that 100% actually occurs, and hilariously, the illustration from Wikipedia comes from our own Lake Winnebago.

    In fact, we had perfect conditions for massive ice shoves this week: warm weather loosening up the ice on the lake, followed by a windy cold front blowing it up against land. The results were spectacular (watch the video, no seriously, watch the video).

    Jen had the bright idea that we should go check out the shoves after a hearty breakfast, which could be a photo essay all of its own. But check it out we did, driving over to Fond du Lac’s Lakeside Park and walking the shoreline for half an hour. You can see the results of our investigation below.

    Ice Shove on frozen Lake Winnebago
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  • Hope In The Time Of Whiplash

    He'll kill us all

    If following the headlines leaves you feeling like you’ve got a tiger by tail, you’re not alone. Nor are you making it up. At least one recent study claims to show that Americans are more stressed out about politics than they’ve been in the past ten years.

    It’s not just the bad news, either. I haven’t slept well this week in part because late on successive nights, news broke about Michael Flynn’s conversations with a Russian counterpart and then his subsequent dismissal. It took an hour to figure out what was going on, and then another hour just to work through all the jokes on Twitter. I need the president to make less history so I can catch up on sleep.

    You could break your neck trying to keep pace. The new administration has been horrifying, hateful, insane, racist, ill-informed, chaotic, depressing, and on the verge of utter collapse, sometimes all in the same press conference. It’s distressing to see the pain this trainwreck is already causing, yet somehow fascinating to watch the wheels fall off in real time. It is not at all clear who—if anyone—is running the nation sometimes. Even when it is, one gets the sense that the malevolence is limited only by the incompetence. The Executive Branch of the United States Government has turned into a bunch of knife-wielding clowns who can’t manage to get themselves out of the car. It would be terrifying if it weren’t so damn funny and also because we’re strapped into our seats and the circusmaster just opened the door to the lion cage.

    All of this makes it difficult to give advice on hopefulness these days. By the time I get done processing the latest existential threat, there’s a new soaring inspiration to talk about, followed by three more depressing things and three rays of sunshine. It’s like Joseph’s dreams of fat and slender calves, only more sinister and drug-addled.

    So how do you keep hope alive in dizzying times like these?

    The short answer: you keep a practice. As we’ve said before, doing something—anything—helps to reduce anxiety and increase a sense of control.

    Given the president’s decided xenophobia, one practice in particular stands out:

    Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.

    That’s from the Epistle to the Hebrews, of course, which I wrote about last week. It’s not accidental that this great sustained meditation on hope and faith would close with a focus on practice. It was traditional to conclude with practical moral guidance, for one thing.

    It’s also true, as someone said, that we often talk about needing hope to take action, but the reverse is just as important: we need to take action in order to feel hope. “Let mutual love continue,” says the author of Hebrews. Love, given and received, is the basis of both Christian morality and Christian hope.

    Hospitality was an esteemed value in the day when traveling any significant distance exposed people to real danger. For Jews, it was a kindness done remembering that “you were once strangers in Egypt.” As they once received hospitality, so they should give. It was both a practical reciprocity and a political statement about the God who liberated them from slavery and constituted their nation. Likewise, when Jesus welcomed to the table tax collectors and other notorious sinners, it was at once a reflection of his understanding of God’s radical grace and a protest against the religious establishment’s exclusive policies.

    Today, even simple generosity is counter-cultural, a work of justice. A couple of weeks ago, average people flooded airports to protest for and cheer on immigrants clearing the CBP gauntlet to show their sense of right and wrong. Demonstrations continue to pop up to show love and acceptance of Muslims and Hispanic immigrants. These things make me proud to be an American still.

    Any practice helps to keep the fires burning in a demoralizing time. Whether organizing protests or writing poetry, taking action helps to set priorities and maintain balance. It’s simple enough to turn out for pro-immigrant rallies or support groups like the New Sanctuary Movement or Voces de la Frontera.

    But although practices by themselves sustain hope, they don’t actually produce it, and hope is what we are after. In that regard, there is no substitute for caring for specific individuals. Christine Pohl says:

    Strangers are “people without a place.” To be without a place is to be disconnected from basic, life-supporting institutions—family, work, civil society, and religious community—and to be without the networks of relations that sustain and support human beings. People without a place who also lack financial resources are the most vulnerable people. This is the condition in which homeless people, displaced poor people, refugees, and undocumented persons find themselves.

    Working with individuals like this to restore broken connections and find a new place in the world is hope-giving. Watching someone heal and come alive again only increases confidence in the belief that healing is in fact possible. Working against the agenda of fear, hate and division strengthens the faith that in the end, that agenda does not control us or our world. Every act of bringing together is an act of disobedience to the command to separate ourselves from those who fall under suspicion. And nurturing simple human relationship buffers us from the ups and downs of the political world.

    Healing, reconciliation, and love are the great sources of hope, because they point to new possibilities to escape the seemingly inescapable logic of hostility and death. They direct us to a better destination for the world. If you feel like your neck’s going to break with every breaking news story, take a breather and go help at the local food pantry or homeless shelter. Sign up to help resettle a refugee family, if you can, or to work with migrants. They’ll appreciate it and they’ll feel good about it.

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