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Sermon for 21 September 2014

FIRST READING Isaiah 55:6–9

6Seek the LORD while he may be found, call upon him while he is near; 7 let the wicked forsake their way, and the unrighteous their thoughts; let them return to the LORD, that he may have mercy on them, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon. 8 For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the LORD. 9 For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.


PSALM Psalm 27:1–9

1 The LORD is my light and my salvation; whom then shall I fear? The LORD is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?
2 When evildoers close in against me to devour my flesh, they, my foes and my enemies, will stumble and fall.
3 Though an army encamp against me, my heart will not fear. Though war rise up against me, my trust will not be shaken.
4 One thing I ask of the LORD; one thing I seek; that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life; to gaze upon the beauty of the LORD and to seek God in the temple.
5 For in the day of trouble God will give me shelter, hide me in the hidden places of the sanctuary, and raise me high upon a rock.
6 Even now my head is lifted up above my enemies who surround me. Therefore I will offer sacrifice in the sanctuary, sacrifices of rejoicing; I will sing and make music to the LORD.
7 Hear my voice, O LORD, when I call; have mercy on me and answer me.
8 My heart speaks your message— “Seek my face.” Your face, O LORD, I will seek.
9 Hide not your face from me, turn not away from your servant in anger. Cast me not away—you have been my helper; forsake me not, O God of my salvation.

SECOND READING Philippians 1:12–14, 19–30

12 I want you to know, beloved, that what has happened to me has actually helped to spread the gospel, 13 so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to everyone else that my imprisonment is for Christ; 14 and most of the brothers and sisters, having been made confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, dare to speak the word with greater boldness and without fear. 19 for I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ this will turn out for my deliverance. 20 It is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be put to shame in any way, but that by my speaking with all boldness, Christ will be exalted now as always in my body, whether by life or by death. 21 For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain. 22 If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me; and I do not know which I prefer. 23 I am hard pressed between the two: my desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better; 24 but to remain in the flesh is more necessary for you. 25 Since I am convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with all of you for your progress and joy in faith, 26 so that I may share abundantly in your boasting in Christ Jesus when I come to you again. 27 Only, live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that, whether I come and see you or am absent and hear about you, I will know that you are standing firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel, 28 and are in no way intimidated by your opponents. For them this is evidence of their destruction, but of your salvation. And this is God’s doing. 29 For he has graciously granted you the privilege not only of believing in Christ, but of suffering for him as well — 30 since you are having the same struggle that you saw I had and now hear that I still have.

GOSPEL Matthew 20:1–16

1 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.”

On Maundy Thursday a church in Roanoke, Virginia would re-enacted the Last Supper and concluded with a dramatic presentation on the seven last words of Christ. A wooden cross is used in the baptistery with a pale blue light and wailing music from “The Soul of Israel.” As each of the seven words is spoken, the light dims and goes out on the words, “It is finished.” Then a storm arises with thunder and flashes of lightening, silhouetting the cross. Following the storm the music brightens and the light gradually floods the cross again.
One Easter, this play was presented to the nursery school children at the church. A couple of weeks later a Presbyterian neighbor called the pastor over and said, “Branan, you’ll get a charge out of this.” The Presbyterian neighbor said they had Communion and their son, Alan, kept asking, “Daddy, what’s that?” “Be quiet, and I’ll tell you when we get outside.” So after the service Alan wanted to know, and his father told him the bread and wine represented the body and blood of Jesus. Alan looked rather puzzled, so his dad said, “You know how Jesus died, don’t you, Alan?” To which the boy replied rather cockily, “Sure, Rev. Thompson showed us all about it. He got struck by lightening.”
In a world more inclined to take up the sword than to take up the cross, I’d like to start by recognizing of the power of the Cross. The Cross, more than any other symbol, is the most recognizable symbol of Christianity. When you think of Islam you think of a crescent, even though technically Islam doesn’t have a symbol – the crescent is the symbol of Pakistan. When we think of Judaism, we think Star of David. So naturally, when we think of Christianity, we immediately think . . . cross. You could then say, the Logos has a logo; two lines that intersect to form a cross. It’s not a plus symbol. A cross, is at one, the symbol of the depths of human degradation and sin, but also, it’s the symbol of the heights of divine love and forgiveness. The cross is a paradoxical symbol of death that can be crossed out with life, a symbol of the crossing of opposites: transcendence and immanence, the vertical and the horizontal, a symbol that God does God’s best in our worst.
This is glaringly evident in today’s epistle lesson, part of the rich prison literature of the Christian tradition. And when you stop and consider it, some of the most beautiful and exquisite literature ever written comes out of prison…think Cervantes, Voltaire, Diderot, Defoe, John Donne, Henry David Thoreau, Oscar Wilde, Jack London. Christianity’s prison literature includes classics like Martin Luther’s translation of the New Testament into German, John Bunyan’s “Pilgrim’s Progress,” Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s “Letters and Papers from Prison,” Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham City Jail,” Nelson Mandela’s “Conversations with Myself.” All of these great works were penned at a time of confinement or restricted movement for the author.
Today’s text is from one of the “prison epistles” which includes Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon. All these letters are so named because they were written by the apostle Paul during his incarceration in Rome. Additionally, perhaps the most famous of the biblical literature written from prison is not by Paul but by John, who wrote “The Book of Revelation” from the isle of Patmos, the Dachau death camp of the first century. It’s a book that so mesmerized Sir Isaac Newton, that he spent more time deciphering the symbolism of the book than he did in his scientific pursuits.
Just as the Holocaust, the ultimate witness to the worst ugliness resident in humanity, produced a vast literature that was witness to the most beautiful writing in the history of humanity, so it seems over and over again the very best comes out of the very worst. Charles Dickens was right. To say “These are the worst of times” is also to say something else: “These are the best of times.” For example, 9/11 . . . the worst of humanity. 9/12 . . . the best of humanity.
Many consider the Great Depression to be the “worst of times.” In the 1930’s the Great Depression still strangled the economic life out of this country from spangled sea to shining shore. But in the midst of slump and despair all around, a new board game suddenly became hugely popular. It had been around since 1906 as “The Landlord’s Game,” but never seemed to catch on. That is until the Depression. The game was invented by a female follower of the political economist Henry George (1839-¬1897), who critiqued the reigning economic system of his day with a “single tax proposal” that inspired the Progressive movement at the turn of the 20th century as well as the social gospel movement.
If you haven’t guessed it by now, the game that took off in the 1930s is now known as “Monopoly.” This game, which has been the teething biscuit for generations of sharp-fanged, hard¬boiled capitalists, was originally created to demonstrate how detrimental reigning real estate and investment practices were to the middle classes. Well, I guess, nothing fails like success. As anyone knows who has ever played Monopoly on a rainy Saturday afternoon, there is little sympathy for the poor person who lands on “Boardwalk” with three hotels perched on its perimeter. Instead of sympathy, the “land owner” crows with delight and takes all the cash, property and whatever else from whomever rolled the dice badly. Instead of educating people about the oppressive nature of “monopolies” and their damaging shadow over people’s lives, the creators of “Monopoly” made capitalism a fun and exciting game. Woops!
Although “Monopoly” is mostly about investment strategies, the game also includes two very important “special cards” that can be gathered and stored away for a “rainy day.” First there are “opportunity” cards. These offer special deals to cardholders, helping them get ahead. Second is another very important card a player can stockpile: the “Get Out of Jail Free” card. All sorts of landing sites on the “Monopoly” board charge players with criminal conduct, demanding that the player “Go Directly to Jail, Do Not Pass Go, Do Not Collect $200”. Once “in jail” the prisoner must either roll a seven, eleven, or doubles, or pay a big pile of dough in order to “get out of jail.” That is unless, of course, the player holds a “get out of jail free” card. For those fortunate players, all they have to do is turn in their “free” card on their next roll and they’re on their way again.
One quick glance at any daily news headlines makes it easy to recognize just how far¬sighted the inventors of the game “Monopoly” were in providing a “get-out-¬of-jail-¬free” card. The US has 5% of the world’s population and 20% of the world’s prisoners. There has never been, in human history, a prison system the size of America’s current one. There are now over 40,000 federal criminal offences . . . . not including state/local crimes. And it seems that more and more offenses are added to the list each year. It appears that we practice mass imprisonment and don’t even know it. According to Judge Posner, we’re a nation that criminalizes more conduct than any other non-Islamic nation. (Judge Richard A. Posner in “The Most Punitive Nation,” TLS: Times Literary Supplement, 1 September 1995, 3¬4.) But even with a systems as good as ours, with all its checks and balances, there are bound to be problems.
Upon examining the prison system it appears that some people, either by birth or breeding or biology, seem to go around with a “get-¬out-of-¬jail-¬free” card safely tucked into their wallets. Other people, again by either birth or breeding or biology, seem to have a “put¬-in-jail” card wrapped around their neck. For these, there is no magic escape route from the prison system.
Now please don’t misunderstand, I’m not disparaging our legal or penal system, no one, including myself, wants to have violent criminals, drug dealers, domestic terrorists, or pedophiles out on the streets. These are the people who hurt others, steal, threaten, who prey upon the innocent; these are the people we want and need to remove from society – to put somewhere separate and secure. But what about those persecuted because of their political or belief: Those non-violent individuals who are being locked away for no other reason than they disagree with the current group in power? If anyone ought to have a tender spot in their heart for those unjustly put in prison and incarcerated, it ought to be followers of Jesus. Jesus included visiting the prisoner along with feeding the hungry as mandated missions for His disciples. In fact, criminals were the people Jesus shared His last moments on earth with, one of whom He personally invited to join Him “in paradise” in His last act of evangelism.
Consider the events of Good Friday: The first convert in heaven? A prisoner. The first “Christian” community? Three criminals on crosses. In order to get the death penalty of crucifixion, and a public execution at Golgotha, you had to be a pretty bad guy — even by Roman standards. The two criminals who hung on the crosses on either side of Jesus were definitely thugs. In terms of the Roman justice system they “deserved” to be there.
We’ve heard the story from our youth; one of the criminals Jesus died in company of scoffed and rejected Him, even as had so many others. But the other crucified convict implored Jesus to “Remember me when you come into your kingdom” (Luke 23:42). It was a “deathbed” repentance brought about by a “deathbed” evangelism on a death sentenced criminal. Followers of Jesus have been offering last-minute, “get ¬out ¬of¬ jail free” cards to all of humanity ever since Jesus offered up His gift of salvation on the cross. Historically then, Christians have been what you might call “jail bait.”
The gospel undercuts the reigning paradigms by which people live, and in turning the world upside down, it opens oneself up to getting in trouble with the authorities, even prosecution and persecution. There was an old saying that wherever Paul went, there was in his wake, a riot or a revival. Yet at the same time, by preaching a message that offers forgiveness and grace, we offer solace to those doing “jail time” and we offer Jesus, the Ultimate “Freedom” card to those in jail or out of jail.
Jesus’ disciples invite criminals, corner-cutters, corrupt operatives, and just plain cruel and crude individuals to receive the same forgiveness and new life that Jesus offers all of humanity—not just the “good guys,” but “good news” to the “bad guys” too. This kind of behavior rarely rates Christians merit points with others. This kind of behavior puts all Christians on the “radar” for the ruthless who practice injustice and cruelty.
In today’s Philippian’s text Paul is writing while he’s in prison. He’s facing the possibility of a death sentence. Yet, he’s not worried about it. In fact, Paul creates an argument for his Philippian friends that preferences execution to executive action necessary in running the church. Paul’s hedging over “I do not know what I shall choose” is not so much Paul’s thinking out loud as it is a writing skill known as “diaporeis,” or “feigned perplexity.” Paul knew he wasn’t going to bail on the Philippian Christian community. But he wanted to showcase the fearlessness of faith while assuring them he would stick around as long as God wanted him to in order to introduce as many as possible to Christ.
Paul showed remarkable nonchalance about where he was or what he was accused of by Rome. Paul’s first and only focus was on all who still hung on crosses next to Christ. Those who were confined, condemned, and deemed criminals in the eyes of the world. For Paul, and for all who understood the full extent of Jesus’ mission in the world, that population extended far beyond those who had gone afoul of any Roman or Jewish law. For Christians, from the first century to the twenty-first century, that population of “law breakers” includes each and every one of us. None of us are beyond the pale of the law.
Paul was jailed for preaching “Jesus is Lord.” Paul got on the nerves and under the skin of the religious and political authorities with all his talk about grace and forgiveness. No wonder Paul was looking towards a heavenly life with Jesus with more enthusiasm than a life of constant persecution and prosecution.
Ultimately, however, Paul acknowledged to the Philippians, that to remain with them “in the flesh” was more of a service than to die in prison. Paul wasn’t afraid of death. Nor was Paul afraid of life either, especially life as a follower of Jesus. As a “writing disciple,” Paul produced many of his apostolic letters from a prison cell. His theology was jailbait to the civil and religious establishments. Nobody among the powers that ruled, whether Roman or Jewish, ¬¬liked what Paul had to say. And nobody wanted to give him an opportunity to say it. Yet Paul kept writing, in and out of prison.
And after Paul, generations of incarcerated Christians continued writing. Prisons have become both big business (new versions of “Monopoly”) and giant fiscal sinkholes over the past few decades. Private corporations are making lots of money offering privately run prison facilities to stressed out state run facilities. Fully two-¬thirds of all ex-prisoners find their way back to prison within three years. One of the best definitions of prison: “an expensive way of making bad men worse” (Bruce Anderson).
In the eyes of his culture, Paul was one of those long-term criminals. His recidivism rate was dismally high. Yet every time he was thrust back into prison he used his “down time” to connect with Christian communities and individuals in whom he had entrusted the message of Jesus as the Christ, the Savior, the Redeemer of the world.
God does His best work in the worst of places and the worst of times. If you speak out for Christ and are part of Christ’s mission in the world, you should be prepared to be on some one’s “watch list” or even “arrest list.” More people are living behind bars than are behind bars. Freedom is less about physical location than spiritual location. The gospel is good news to all who are imprisoned . . . . whether imprisoned by iron bars or imprisoned by bars of mind, spirit, soul, or society. Disciples of Jesus are “go to jail” people and are “in jail” with all people. If truth be told, we are all imprisoned by our failure to be fully human and our inability to be full participants in the Father’s love.
When Paul was in his absolute worse circumstances, chained in prison, steeped in disease and duress, under a death sentence, he became his most eloquent. His clarity and conviction about Jesus and his mission were never better stated. The ultimate in Christian theology was delivered from behind bars, by a multiply-condemned convict.
That’s our heritage. That’s our hope. That’s the legacy that we’ve been given as first followers of Jesus. Those who first believed, those who first preached and promised, were not given blessings and basilicas. They were given life sentences and death penalties.
In medieval Scotland there was a hated prison known as the “Midlothian Prison.” It was on “High Street.” Today it’s commemorated by a heart shaped cobbled inlay on the “Hostile High Street” in Edinburgh at the very doorway of the site where public executions used to take place. Visitors to Edinburgh will often notice people spitting on the Heart. It used to be people spit on those being executed. Now people spit on the heart as a sign of disdain for the former prison. People now spit on the heart each time they pass, both for good luck, and as a wish that they would be blessed by a return to Edinburgh. (http://varhungrig.files.wordpress.com/2012/10/img_3183.jpg)
Spit, saliva ejected from the mouth which was a sign of curse, Jesus turned into a sign of healing and holiness. That’s what Jesus wants to do in our life . . . to bring good out of evil. To bright the best out of the worst. To bring blessing out of cursing. To bring life out of death. “These are the worst of times.” Yes, but to those who follow Jesus, “These are the best of times.”

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