Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Counting Past Ten

Sermon preached October 5, 2014

Texts: Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20; Matthew 21:33-46

            Christians around the world are celebrating communion today.  It is World Communion Sunday, a day when we are invited again to hear a call to the Church to be the universal and inclusive Church.  The day was first observed by Presbyterians in 1936, and was adopted as a day to be celebrated by the Federal Council of Churches in 1940.  Shortly thereafter, the Methodist, Evangelical and United Brethren churches adopted the day in their church calendars.  It has become a time when Christians in every culture break bread and pour the cup to remember and affirm that we are united in Jesus the Christ, that finally the church belongs not to us, but to Jesus. Christians celebrate the communion liturgy in as many ways as there are congregations.  I am going to be leaving right after worship to help with another celebration of communion this morning.  The church where I was confirmed, Lester Park UMC, is celebrating both World Communion Sunday and its 125th anniversary.  I was asked if I could be there to help with communion.  My apologies for leaving so quickly today.  If this is your first Sunday with us and you wanted to say “hello” I hope you’ll come back and do that.
            World Communion Sunday is a wonderful celebration, but we need to acknowledge that the unity of the church is not fully realized.  Even within our United Methodist Church there are some deep disagreements about how to read our shared stories in the Bible, about the meaning of those stories and Scriptures for issues such as human sexuality, peacemaking and war, how to deal with poverty.  Beyond our denomination, the church is divided over many questions.  Should clergy be able to marry?  Should women be allowed to be clergy?
            Amid all these differences, how might we describe the core of Christian faith, something that draws all of us together, even if we may debate a host of other issues?
            I sometimes hear people say that part of the core of faith can be found in what we call “The Ten Commandments.”  We read them just a bit ago.  They seem pretty crucial, pretty important.  Yet even here, there have been some disagreements about how we should express their importance.  Some of you may remember that at one time there was a granite display of The Ten Commandments on city property.  When it was moved, yard signs sprang up around the city with the Ten Commandments on them.  It was almost as if you should put such a sign in your yard if your were really committed to the faith.  My guess is that Christians disagreed about that, too.
            There are a few issues with the Ten Commandments as the core of our faith, though.  Does the prohibition against making idols prohibit religious art?  Some have thought so.  Is the essence of God that God punishes the children for the iniquity of the parents – oops, we didn’t read that part, did we?  What might it mean to take God’s name in vain, to make wrongful use of it?  We sometimes have reduced that to a prohibition against cussing, but is that really among the most important things for our lives?  How are we doing with the entire Sabbath day thing?  How does it fit in a society dramatically different from the agricultural society of ancient Israel?  The last commandment about coveting is certainly important, but it groups together houses, livestock, and wives.
            The Ten Commandments are important, but they need some interpretive work.  Yet there is an even more pressing problem with looking to them as the core of our faith.  It can make of our faith a simple checklist.  We can begin to think that this is all there is.  If only we do x, y and z, then we have this Christian faith thing down.
            Now rules matter.  They help us remember to do the right thing and they help us pay attention to each other.  Yet at the heart of Christian faith is relationship and responsiveness, rather than rules.  Rules are important, but they do not encompass everything about relationships or all there is to be a responsive and responsible person – responsive to God and to other persons, responsible to God and for our own growth and actions.
            At the heart of Christian faith is relationship with God, a God who we often know in whispers, in glimpses, in soft breezes and gentle touches.  In a footnote to Exodus 20:4 in one of my study Bibles, I found this: The prohibition against making idols limits our ability to tie God down or to reduce God to something we are comfortable with. (Discipleship Study Bible)  Of course, for Christians, we believe we see God, know God best in Jesus, but it is a Jesus whose story is told four times with different nuances, and none of these tellings is exactly what we would think of as a biography.  The stories of Jesus are told as parables more than as example stories.  Example stories generate great rules.  George Washington chopped down a cherry tree, but told the truth about it to his father.  Don’t lie.  Abraham Lincoln walked miles to return a library book on time.  Keep your promises.  The stories of Jesus are much more difficult to turn into simple example stories.  Even with Jesus at the heart of Christian faith, the God with whom we are in relationship in Jesus remains a God known in whispers, glimpses, soft breezes, gentle touches.
            That doesn’t mean can never say anything meaningful about God, and God’s presence in our lives.  A couple of weeks ago, I went to the hospital to visit Bill Wolden.  It was a Friday, a day I don’t usually go visiting.  Walking down the hall at Essentia I ran into a woman I have known for many years.  I was her parent’s pastor at Nashwauk United Methodist Church.  I asked here what brought her to the hospital.  Her dad.  I told her I would stop by after visiting Bill, and I did.  I visited with Ken, his daughter and his wife.  I prayed with Ken.  We prayed for Ken the next Sunday in church.  Ken died this past Monday.
            What brought me to the hospital at just that time?  Pure coincidence?  Maybe, but maybe also something of the serendipitous grace of God – there seems something here of the whisper of God, a glimpse of God, a gentle touch from God, a soft breeze of the Spirit.
            This God with whom we are in relationship in Jesus Christ is a God of adventure, of serendipity, a God who is often up to new things.  Finally, that is the message of the sad, violent story Jesus tells.  The problem with the tenants is that they could not see goodness.  They could not respond appropriately to the good.  They clung to a sense that everything in life is zero-sum, rather than be open to the possibility that a vineyard owner could be gracious and treat them well.
            At the heart of Christian faith is the God of Jesus who loves us into life and who invites us, in turn, to live in such a way that we love others into life.  This kind of responsive, relational living cannot be fully determined by a rulebook.  Christian faith is not finally a simple checklist.  We need to be careful not to over-define or over-confine lest we find ourselves trying to tie God down or reduce God to something we are comfortable with.  God’s Spirit is too wild and adventurous for that.  God’s grace is too serendipitous for that.
            Christian faith is a relationship with and a response to this God of Jesus Christ who continues to love us into life and who, in turn, invites us to love each other into life, and somehow gathering together around communion makes us more responsive.  We celebrate that today with Christians around the world.  Amen.

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