Sunday, November 19, 2017

Bookkeeping



sermon preached at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Bellingham, WA
by the Rev. Josh Hosler, Associate Priest for Adult Formation
Proper 28A [Track 2], The Twenty-Fourth Sunday after Pentecost, November 19, 2017
Zephaniah 1:7,12-18; Psalm 90:1-8, (9-11), 12; [1 Thessalonians 5:1-11]; Matthew 25:14-30

Picture this: a woman named Eleanor finds herself in a waiting room and is called into an office. A kindly man informs her that she has died and proceeds to thank her for all the good deeds she did on earth, deeds that earned her enough points to qualify for the Good Place.

Ted Danson and Kristen Bell in The Good Place
(image from sqpn.com)
But Eleanor knows there has been a terrible bookkeeping error. She did not do any of these good deeds—that must have been someone else. As a matter of fact, she was a pretty awful person on earth. She lied and cheated and, worst of all, she cut herself off from all her meaningful relationships. Eleanor is the only one who knows that she doesn’t deserve to be in The Good Place. Will she fess up? Or will she now try to become a good person in order to remain here, and not to be banished to The Bad Place? And how will her newfound friends, Chidi, Tahani, and Jianyu, help or hinder her efforts?

The EPIC Fall Retreat -- a "good place" to be
This is a synopsis of the first episode of the TV show The Good Place, which our college students watched on our fall retreat last weekend. In two nights we eagerly binge-watched the entire first season, and it left us with lots of questions about what it means to be a good person, and what a fair reckoning of our lives might look like.

Today’s readings are concerned with this sort of reckoning. Zephaniah prophesies punishment against the wealthy for their complacency, their unbelief, their abuse of the poor … for their gall in saying, “I have enough money to do what I want to do, and who’s going to stop me? God Almighty?” For that, says Zephaniah, the people will lose their money, their homes, and their freedom. Sure enough, the Babylonians will soon conquer them and cart them off into an exile which the prophets say is God’s doing, not that of the Babylonians. It’s the deserved punishment for being awful people. And naturally, since the ancient Jews had no developed concept of an afterlife, this punishment is to take place while the people are still living.

Our psalm today counters Zephaniah’s bleak vision with an appeal to trust. Even in death, we belong to God. Yet the psalmist is also concerned with how we spend this little bit of time we have. “So teach us to number our days,” he implores, “that we may apply our hearts to wisdom.” The psalmist relies on God to rescue us from our sinful ways. But both Zephaniah and the psalmist are in the business of bookkeeping: minding the store of our day-to-day decisions so that we can demonstrate ourselves faithful to God, our creator.

What shape are your books in? Do you do your own books? Do you keep score for yourself? I numbered my days this week. As of today, I have been alive for 16,462 days. Not bad! That’s 23 million minutes. That’s a billion and a half seconds. Now, even assuming I don’t die particularly young, I’m probably past the midpoint of my life. I’ll shoot for 30,000 days—that’s two and a half billion seconds. That’s 82 years. That’s a good number. It’ll be enough for me.

But does this number-crunching help me apply my heart to wisdom? Will the inevitability of my death inspire me to grow? No matter what we do or don’t do in this life, it’ll all be over before we know it. What then? Will we be welcomed into The Good Place? And on what basis? What will the Great Bookkeeper say?

In Jesus’ parable today, a man goes on a journey. Let’s assume that this is God, and let’s identify ourselves—the entire human race—as the master’s slaves. God goes away somewhere—becomes apparently absent—and entrusts us with his liquid assets. Now, the word “talent,” meaning a specific sum of money, does sound like our word for the God-given talents we use to accomplish things. But don’t get wrapped up in this coincidence or you’ll only wind up comparing your own talents to those of others. The parable is not literally about money, but let money be the metaphor for now. Money is the stuff of bookkeeping. It can be numbered precisely and invested wisely, and it can accrue interest in a healthy economy. Whether it stands in for time or abilities or opportunities to love, for the sake of the story, the point is that my money’s as good as yours.

Next, understand this: one talent is a lot of money—by today’s standards, maybe half a million dollars. So the master goes away and entrusts one slave with two and a half million, another with one million, and a third with half a million. This guy is loaded. Not only that, he’s trusting. He gives us his belongings and doesn’t micromanage—or even manage—what we do with it. Sounds like life to me! In short, God treats us not as slaves, but as partners-in-training, awarding vast sums even to the one he doesn’t trust all that much. And then, after a long time, he returns.

How does God return to us? Zephaniah has just told us that God will make “a terrible end … of all the inhabitants of the earth.” Now, if you love to talk about “the end times,” OK, that’s fine, but it’s unnecessary. First, there’s no point postulating about things that both Jesus and Paul have specifically said are beyond our ability to know or understand. Second, even if the world does suddenly end on some idle Tuesday in a slam-bang, divinely dramatic way, would you really want to be around to see it?

So today, I want us to think of “the day of the Lord” simply as the day of each of our individual deaths. At least we can all agree that this will happen. In death, we step off the timeline into the settling of accounts.

The first two business partners please the master greatly: they have doubled what was given to them. Perhaps they became job creators, or they provided capital for some exciting new business. Or maybe they just gave it all away and became so well loved for their generosity that people gave back to them what they needed and more. I don’t know. The point is that they did something with it.

But the third partner hid his half million under his mattress for the rest of his life. He was too afraid of losing the money to play the game. His fear of God is not respectful awe, but abject, cowering fear—not like a partner, but like a slave. For him, the fear of God is not the beginning of wisdom, but of folly.

The slave makes excuses: he claims that the master is well known for taking things that don’t belong to him. Is this true? We don’t have to muse for very long to discover that it is not possible for God to act in this way, since all things in all space and time belong to God. Though we may feel put upon by God’s sovereignty, there is nothing inappropriate about it. It’s just the way it is.

The slave believes he has gamed the system, checking off the boxes of commandments he has not broken, steadfastly avoiding due punishment. But it turns out that the master was never worried about the money. The money is not the end, but the means through which mere slaves become beloved partners. When the master says “well done” to the first two, it’s not because they doubled his money, but because they worked at becoming. They played the game, win or lose. The sin of the third slave is that he put more value in the money than in the assignment. Neither money nor time nor even our good works have any value after we die. But who have we become? Have we learned how to love? There is enough love for everyone, and it never runs out.

Point values in The Good Place(screen shot from Episode 1)
Sure, I imagine that God is omniscient and sees all that we do. But there are no point totals, because that would be futile. If we did good works to score points—to earn our way into God’s good graces—our motives would taint them. And so our good works, even if they earn a “well done!” from the master, are just that: good works. They are valuable for their own sake. But they are not the currency over which our accounts will be settled. In death, God deletes all our files and welcomes only us.

The third slave doesn’t see that. He believes he is nothing without his spotless record book. He can’t imagine having any sort of relationship with the master, who is only frightening to him. Who knows how much time he spent all his life weeping and gnashing his teeth in an effort not to risk, not to engage with God’s world in any way? It would have felt like death, putting ink on those pages—trying hard and perhaps failing, giving to others without expectation of anything in return. It’s too late now, and all is lost.

Or is it? No! The shocker is that in death, everything that dies is resurrected! All the third slave needs to do is throw his record book away and die, and the master will raise him up as a resurrected partner! But those who refuse to die cannot enter into love—the joy of the master—the Good Place.

Sin is willful separation from God, separation from love. To those who hide from death and thus from God, love is painful and fear becomes a semi-comfortable refuge, a Good-Enough Place. Maybe the Bad Place is just a holding tank for all the party poopers who just need to get over their fear of death. Of course, that process would feel like punishment. But it may be more like a surgical procedure: separating the wheat from the chaff, the fear from the love, then nursing the formerly fearful back into health and a resurrected life.

Fear not. You are eternally loved. God knows we screw things up in our lives. But you really can’t screw this up permanently—except by saying, “I am not a part of God’s world. I don’t need to play.” Don’t kid yourself. All of creation is The Good Place, even your life right now. To those who love, death is just another doorway into an even larger Good Place.

I trust the business sense of the master who cares nothing for money. I trust the hands of the surgeon who is operating on me. And I trust the love of the one who took all our deaths into his own on the cross. I trust the one who went ahead of us into death and came back just long enough to say, “Don’t be afraid. I’ll go on ahead and meet you there.” Amen.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

God Heard It Through the Grapevine



sermon preached at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Bellingham, WA
by the Rev. Josh Hosler, Associate Priest for Adult Formation
Proper 22A [Track 2], The Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost, October 8, 2017

This sermon began life as a seminary paper. That work, which is more academic in nature, can be found here

Let us imagine for a moment that we are residents of ancient Judah. The setting is Jerusalem in the year 723 B.C.E. Fear is in the air, for the Assyrians are threatening to overrun both the northern kingdom of Israel, against which we hold no small grudge, and the southern kingdom of Judah, where we live and where we believe—or at least hope—that our identity as the keepers of God’s temple will protect us from foreign invasion.

Isaiah on the street corner?
(from https://static.pexels.com/photos/
363156/pexels-photo-363156.jpeg)
People bustle by, taking care of business and trying not to think about the dire political situation. A beggar cries out for bread, but he is ignored. A thin-faced widow leads her four children through an alley, on her way who-cares-where. And on the busiest street corner of all, the Prophet Isaiah has begun to sing a song.

From its first notes, we recognize it as a familiar and rather hackneyed song about a vineyard. This is surprising fare from a prophet who has gained a reputation for gloom and doom. But the song is a guilty pleasure, and Isaiah is a good singer, so we stop to listen.

The first lyrics we indeed know well, for we have heard them sung often at weddings by a paid musician or a musically inclined uncle.[1] We can even sing along with verse 1: “I will sing now for my dear friend a song about him and his vineyard. My dear friend has a vineyard on a fertile hill.”[2] The lyrics are pleasant to the ear in our native Hebrew, with a singsong quality:

Ashirah na lididi shirat dodi. L’charmo kerem hayah lididi b’qeren ben-shamen.

When we hear “lididi” and “dodi,” it may as well be “do wah diddy diddy” to us … but these are not nonsense syllables. Both words mean “dear one” or “beloved.” The man is setting up a house for his bride, and as the music modulates, we expect to hear about a couple of kids running in the yard. So, imagine instead the Beatles’ “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da.”

“And he expected a yield of grapes … but it yielded nasty, stinking grapes.” Whoa, whoa, hang on. This isn’t a love song at all: it’s a cheating song! What began as “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” has become “I Heard It through the Grapevine.”

We move into the second section of what will turn out to be a suite, and it is here that Isaiah changes rhythm and even vocal tone to signify that it is no longer the best man who is speaking. The honeymoon is over, and the bridegroom himself, all worked up in grief and anger, steps up to the microphone for his recitative: “And now, residents of Jerusalem … judge, if you please, between me and my vineyard.” Isaiah has dragged us into court, and we are placed on the bench to hear the farmer’s grievances: “What more could I have done for my vineyard that I have not already done? Why, when I expected a yield of grapes, did it yield nasty, stinking grapes?”

Now, suddenly conscripted into service as magistrates, we wonder: how can a vineyard be responsible for its own crop? Could the farmer have done more after all? Did he do something to make his bride feel unloved? Or is this mixed metaphor about to break down completely? We are given no time to review the evidence before a loud voice proclaims the sentence:

So now, listen up! I will declare to you what I am doing to my vineyard. I will take away its hedge, and it will be destroyed. I will break down its wall, and it will become a trampled-down place. And I will lay it waste. It will not be pruned, and it will not be hoed, and thorn bushes and other rough growth will come up …

The court has become a divorce court, and this relationship seems to be over. We move from the soulful heartbreak of “I Heard It through the Grapevine” into a bitter breakup song, a country song, perhaps “My Give a Damn’s Busted.” The farmer is leaving his bride, and he will allow the vineyard to go to seed in whatever way nature takes its course. “… And I will command the dark clouds not to rain on it!” Here is yet another surprise. This is no literal farmer and no literal husband. Only God can control the weather.

8th century B.C.E., after the Kingdom of Israel
had split in two. Note the menacing
Assyrians to the north!
When we first noticed Isaiah on the street corner, we expected a prophecy of doom, and we’re going to get one. Oh boy! I bet it’s about that accursed northern kingdom of Israel, the faithless ones who worship on a mountain instead of in the temple, and who are about to get served by the Assyrians. Surely this prophecy will be against them, we hope, as Isaiah continues: “And the vineyard of YHWH-of-the-angel-armies is the house of Israel.” Of course it is. We knew it all along, so we exchange self-satisfied smirks.

“And the man of Judah is the plantation of his delight.”

With this line, Isaiah cuts us to the bone. There we stand on the corner, tried and convicted, though we don’t even understand yet what the charges are. All this time Isaiah has been using God’s voice to condemn us! This is not a love song, or a cheating song, or a breakup song, or even a “God Bless Judah” patriotic anthem. This is a condemnation of us for blatant sins against God and humanity.

But what have we done to deserve this condemnation? Isaiah saves the charges for the very end, and here he uses one of the most famous examples of wordplay in the Hebrew Bible: “And [God] expected mishpat—justice—but behold, mishpah—bloodshed! ‘Tz’daqa’—righteousness—but behold, ‘tz’aqa’—a cry of distress! The words stick in our ears as they stick in Isaiah’s throat. We have cheated on God. We have produced stinking grapes, rather than the sweet grapes that God took every possible measure to assure and which we had no right not to produce. God loves us and longs for us, but what have we done? We stand guilty as charged … right there on the street corner in Jerusalem, surrounded by beggars, widows, and orphans.

Is all hope lost? No. For as we prayed in today’s Collect, God is always readier to hear than we to pray, and to give more than we either desire or deserve. The harvest will come, but not in the way we expected.

Jesus said, “Listen to another parable. There was a landowner who planted a vineyard …” Sound familiar? After three quarters of a millennium, the new prophet Jesus stands in Jerusalem—right in the reconstructed temple!—developing the song further. The behavior of the tenants is deplorable. Their logic is ridiculous—how will killing the heir get them the inheritance? Yet this is what they do. What treatment do they deserve from the landowner? Death, we cry, of course!

But we have seen the enemy, and he is us. We have cheated on God. We have killed the Lord of Love. We have concentrated our wealth among very few in the name of “progress.” We have wrecked our planet, and that is affecting the poor first. We continue to allow all sorts of injustice. We have tried to take God’s Kingdom by force, when force will accomplish, at best, a sickly parody of what God desires for us. By our fruits we are known.[3]

Is all hope lost? No. For we are God’s beloved planting, and God is always ready to give more than we either desire or deserve. The harvest will come, but not in a way that anybody could have expected.

Now, we should probably let go of the husband-and-wife metaphor at this point. Otherwise we just might wind up thinking of God as an abusive spouse, and overidentify ourselves with wanton strumpets or some other ridiculous sexist term. Let’s focus instead on the humility to which the vineyard song calls us. We are God’s beloved creation, made for the purpose of love. Creation is like a spillover of divine love into billions and billions of consciousnesses, made in the image of God—made to love and to create and to give joy. When we fail to do that for which we were made, we yield stinking grapes.

But the vintner will see that the good harvest comes. “I am the vine,” says Jesus, “and you are the branches. Abide in me.” You are God’s beloved. Do you get that—really get that? We are invited to be the harvest, and to live eternally in God together. “Eternally” doesn’t just mean after we die; it also means right now.

Now, I don’t know about your own experience of God’s love, but let me tell you mine: it was only once I truly understood myself to have yielded stinking grapes that I felt God at work within me, redeeming my life. Sin-and-redemption is not a narrative that our culture is comfortable with, but it is a narrative that defines who I am in relationship to my creator. When I was in the pit, God jumped down into it with me and held me and called me “beloved.” I didn’t become a better person through logic or willpower or shame, or in order to get something from God. I became a better person because I am loved. “We love because He first loved us.”[4]

And so we give love to people who need it, not just people who deserve it. We use the talents that God has given us in joyful ways—not calculated for maximum efficiency, but with abandon, as labors of love. And we give away our money, especially in a culture like ours where money has the final say in most matters. For the sake of our souls, we must practice not needing as much of it! We seek out the joy in giving away our wealth—not to meet a budget, but to help support the work that the Holy Spirit is already engaged in.

As I look around St. Paul’s, I see good grapes ripening for the harvest. And it’s not like we are incapable of producing filthy, stinking grapes—after all, this story is for us, not just some kingdom next door. But God has given us more than we could ever deserve. If we have lack, it’s not God’s fault. It’s either because we don’t see the abundance, or because some other human beings are keeping the abundance from us.

So let’s be a different kind of human beings, relaxing into God’s generosity. Let’s share, and in that sharing, let’s grow more closely together in love. For that, my friends, is God’s dream for this vineyard, and we are the planting of God’s delight. Amen.



[1] For more about Isaiah 5:1-7 as an “uncle’s song,” see John T. Willis, “The Genre of Isaiah 5:1-7,” in Journal of Biblical Literature, Vol. 96, No. 3 (Sep., 1977), 337.

[2] The translation of Isaiah 5:1-7 throughout is my own.

[3] Matthew 7:16

[4] John 4:19