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Renewing Our Covenant: We Unite to Serve (Stay Awake!)

2019-03-25

All through the season of Lent, I have been inviting the people of Plymouth to ponder our motto: We Agree to Differ. We resolve to Love. We Unite to Serve.  From now through Easter, I am preaching a series of sermons on the meaning of membership at Plymouth Church. Each sermon will have two texts: the Scripture lesson assigned by the Narrative Lectionary and the church motto of Plymouth Church.

So right now my plan looks like this:

March 10                              We Agree to Differ              Matthew 18:15-35 (Forgiveness)

March 17                              We Resolve to Love             Matthew 20:1-16 (Parable of the Workers)

March 31                              We Unite to Serve                Matthew 25:1-13 (Parable of Ten Foolish Bridesmaids)

April 14                                  Join the Crowd                    Matthew 21:1-17 (Palm Sunday)

April 21                                  With Fear and Great Joy  Matthew 28:1-10 (Easter)

The series started three weeks ago with We agree to differ. (You can read that blog post here). Then two weeks ago we explored We resolve to love. (Read that blog post here).

This week we come to the final 3rd of the motto: We unite to serve. And to help us reflect, we have a story often referred to as The Parable of the Bridesmaids.

Matthew 25:1-13

“Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. 2Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. 3When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; 4but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. 5As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. 6But at midnight there was a shout, ‘Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ 7Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps.8The foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ 9But the wise replied, ‘No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.’ 10And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut. 11Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ 12But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I do not know you.’13Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.

 

As always, context is key. We are in the last life of Jesus’ life. He has been teaching in the Temple courts. And in chapter 24, we get Matthew’s version of “the mini Apocalypse.” Jesus tells the disciples about impending cataclysmic events. The immediate focus is the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE, but it also seems to encompass predictions about the end of the world.

 

The parable of the ten bridesmaids is unique to Matthew’s Gospel. It opens a section of three stories that serve as a transition from the apocalyptic discourse of chapter 24 to Matthew’s account of Jesus’ last week, which begins in chapter 26. Read in sequence, the three parables (the ten bridesmaids, the talents and the judgment) convey a common mood of heightened expectation and a common summons to a live in awareness that the reign of God is at hand.

 

The parable of the ten bridesmaids, however, presents certain challenges for the interpreter. Simply put, it is hard to shake the impression that verses 1 through 12 (the story itself) convey one meaning, while verse 13 (an interpretation of the story) suggests something entirely different. Taken alone, the story paints a stark contrast between preparedness and lack of the same. Those who are wise plan ahead and prove ready, even if they have fallen asleep; those who are foolish fail to plan ahead and end up missing the party. So the message seems clear enough: live as one of the wise and you will always be prepared –an apocalyptic anticipation of the Boy Scout motto.

 

But verse 13 takes this tidy scheme and turns it on its head: “Keep awake, therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.” This makes a strange conclusion for a story in which everyone—wise and foolish alike—failed to keep awake.  Matthew has apparently taken this verse from Mark 13:35, where it serves to sum up a very different parable. And the admonition to “keep awake” (grēgoreō) is a loaded one. It is the very same request that Jesus will soon make of his disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane (Matthew 25:41).

 

To be honest, verse 13 is my favorite part of the passage. In these words I hear an invitation to live “a wide awake life.”

 

And that seems very relevant to our motto.

 

But first, a confession: I wonder if I have been going about this the wrong way. I have been treating the motto as three independent clauses: We agree to differ. We resolve to love. We unite to serve.  Maybe we think they describe three different and equally important aspects of our life as a church. And I think about that approach, the more mistaken it seems. What if the motto is meant to be read more like a story? What if the motto outlines a plot? First, we agree to differ. Then we resolve to love. Finally, we unite to serve.

 

Why do I prefer this approach? Because some of us seem to invoke the motto as a kind of lowest-common-denominator approach to doing church together. We agree to differ. Well, yes, we do. Our church begins in the recognition that our relationships with each other are not contingent on our agreement with each other. As members of Plymouth Church, we value and respect people who do not agree with us.

 

But we don’t stop there. We start with agreeing to differ…and then we push on. We resolve to love.  Mere tolerance of each other is not enough. We commit to cherishing each other, learning from each other, remembering that each of us is equally entitled to all of God’s grace.

 

But we don’t stop there. We agree to differ, we resolve to love and then we unite to serve. The church as an organization exists for the benefit of its nonmembers. We are not here for our own sake. We are here to have an impact on the world.

 

And Matthew 25:13 gives us such a suggestive image. What does that look like? The wide awake life. Keeping each other alert to all that God is doing so that we can play our part.

 

We agree to differ. We resolve to love. We unite to Serve.

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Renewing Our Covenant: We Resolve to Love (2nd Sermon in a Series)

2019-03-18

 

I.

This sermon is not going to turn out the way that I had hoped.

 

We have a motto here at Plymouth Church: We agree to differ. We resolve to love. We unite to serve. And I am preaching a sermon series on the motto. Today is the second installment in that series. Today I will focus on the middle of the motto: We resolve to love.

 

And this sermon is not going to turn out the way that I had hoped.

 

You see, I thought this would be the easy sermon in the series. Agree to Differ? Too much conflict. Unite to Serve? Too much work. But Resolve to Love? That’s the good stuff. That’s the sweet spot. That’s where you go to get the warm and fuzzy sermon.

 

I was all set to preach that sermon. I was looking forward to preaching that sermon.

 

And then I looked up our text for today.

 

Warm? Fuzzy? Not so much. This is the kind of Scripture text that ruins good sermons.

 

At Plymouth Church we resolve to love. And today’s text tells us just how hard that can be.

II.

It is getting late in the Gospel according to Mathew, and Jesus would like a word with us.

 

The mood in Matthew has started to change. Jesus is drawing near to Jerusalem, and soon his life will come to its terrible climax –to betrayal, to abonnement, to the cross. And as the time grows short, Jesus has some things to say to his friends, Things that sound strange. Things that can be hard to hear.

 

Like the Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard.

 

What is the kingdom of heaven like? It is a like a man who has a vineyard. And his operation relies on day laborers. So early one morning, he gets up and goes out to the Wal-Mart parking lot, finds some guys and puts them to work in his vineyard.

 

This is hard work –back breaking work, blistering work, a long day under a hot sun.

 

And, apparently, there is plenty of work to go around. The owner of the vineyard goes back to the Wal-Mart parking lot at mid-morning to hire some more workers. And then he goes back to hire even more workers, at noon, at three. Finally, at five o’clock, when the day is nearly done—he goes back, gathers even more workers and sends them out to tend his vineyard along with the others.

 

Finally, as the sun settles in the west, the workday concludes. The laborers line up to be paid –in order, with those who worked the least going first in the pay line. And these guys who only worked an hour…get a full day’s wage! So the people farther back the line—the people who worked more or even all of the day—start getting excited. They’re doing multiplication in their heads; they’re thinking about steak dinners; they’re dreaming about new shoes or maybe have a little something to set aside for a rainy day.

 

But when they get to the front of the line, the ones who worked hard all through the heat of the day get…one day’s wage. Same as the workers who put in one hour.

 

And they grumble about this. It’s not fair! We have borne the burden of the day, the scorching heat. And you made them equal to us.

 

Is that fair?

 

No. That’s love.

 

III.

 

We resolve to love.

 

It is not exactly toiling in a vineyard…but it is hard work all the same. Forget the warm and fuzzy feelings; the middle part of our motto is a pretty big lift. Loving as God loves will require all the resolve that we have got.

 

Why is it so hard? I think I struggle so much with the love of God because God’s love feels like a foreign country to me.  That is how Jesus starts this story: “The kingdom of heaven is like…” When Jesus describes the love of God, he is talking about a foreign country. The food is different. The language is different. The customs, the culture, the mores are all so very different from what I would expect.

 

I was born and nurtured and educated into a very specific set of values. I am an American and that means I am deeply invested in the notion of fairness. Our political order is (in theory) a set of procedures that ensures equal treatment of everyone under the law. Our judicial system is (in theory) a set of institutions committed to equal treatment under the law. Our economic order is (in theory) a set of practices offering everyone equal access to opportunity.

 

If Americans have a creed, it is fairness. If our country has one guiding principle, it is fairness. The logic of fairness impacts our expectations, informs our decision, shapes our lives.

 

But what is the first thing that happens in the kingdom of heaven? Fairness goes out the window. After hearing this story, we know exactly one thing about the love of God: The love of God is not fair.

 

We resolve to love.

IV.

Can I learn to love like that? To let go of fairness and lean into…something else. Can we learn to love like that?

 

And can this story—the Laborers in the Vineyard—can this story help?

 

I think it can –if we use it the right way. The story makes me uncomfortable. And I think I need to explore that a little.

 

Why does this story make me uncomfortable? It has a lot to do with where I see myself in it. When I hear this story, my very first, gut-level reaction is to identify with the guys who worked all day. That is who I am in this story. I’m a hard worker, just like them. I worked all day. I deserve what I get.

 

But is that who I am in this story? Am I the worker who puts in a whole day?

 

I am not so sure.[1]

 

Look with me at verses 13-15. Those who have labored all day—the hard workers, the heroes, the people like me—those who labored all day grumble about their unfair treatment. And the owner of the vineyard responds:

 

‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? 14Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. 15Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’

 

Now: No translation of the Bible is perfect. But in this case, I think the New Revised Standard Version really misses the point. Are you envious because I am generous? OK, but the original Greek is so much more poetic: Is your eye evil because I am good?

 

Does this story seem wrong to me? Does it offend my notions of fair play? Maybe there is something wrong with the story…or maybe there is something wrong with the way I see things. If God is good, maybe my evil eye is the problem.

 

And maybe I need to take another look at my own life.

 

I joined the United Church of Christ in April of 2002. And I was ordained by the United Church of Christ in May of 2003. Member to minister in 13 months. If that sounds fast to you…it is. I did not really notice at the time. I never stopped to wonder why it went so quickly and so smoothly for me. I just figured that was the way it should be. Because I work so hard. Because I deserve it.

 

I really used to think that.

 

In the last two decades, I have watched a lot of people go through the ordination process. And, in almost every case, it takes longer for other than it did for me. In almost every case, it seems harder for other people than it was for me. It takes longer for the women candidates. It takes longer for the GLBTQ candidates. It takes longer for the candidates of color. When I look back over my shoulder, I see them. And I realize: they have done the hard work. They have borne the burden of the day. They know all about the scorching heat.

 

Who am I in this story? I am, obviously, the guy getting a whole day’s pay for one hour of work.[2]

 

In my entire life, I have never been treated fairly. When I talk about being treated fairly, it is mostly a myth –a self-serving story to make me feel entitled to what I have. And when I talk about treating others fairly, it is mostly an excuse to treat them badly; to hold them up to some standard I have never had to meet.

 

Forget about fair. God does not believe in fairness. And at Plymouth Church, neither do we. No, we resolve to love. Everybody is loved here. Everybody. It does not matter if you have been a member for all of your long life or if you just walked in the door. You are loved. It does not matter if you are one of our top pledgers or if you have never given us a dime. You are loved. It does matter if you served on every board and show up for every committee or if you have treated the governance of this church as more of a spectator sport. You are loved. It does matter if you have a voice like Ed Griffith or if you couldn’t find the pitch with two hands and a flashlight. You are loved. It does not matter of you come to church for the sermons or if you come to church in spite of the sermons. You are loved. It does not matter if you are doing Bible in 90 Days for the second time around or if you think Ruth and Naomi are contestants on the latest season of the Bachelor. You are loved.

 

All of us are loved. All of us belong. And we are trying to learn how to treat each other as if we really believe that.

 

At Plymouth Church we resolve to love. If you want be treated fairly…go to the Social Security office.

 

 

Notes

 

[1] Two considerations guide my interpretation here. First, A Charles Cousar points out, this is a story addressed to insiders. Jesus is teaching his own disciples; those who got in on the ground floor. Of course they will identify with the workers who spent the whole day in the vineyard. See Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV –Year A. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 1995, pp.493-495). Second, Matthew is a Jewish-Christian writer who is probably responding to the concerns of other Jewish Christians that the Gentile Christians are latecomers –those in the story who work only an hour.

[2] This is my attempt to practice Mark Allan Powell’s strategy of becoming more conscious of my own empathy choices (with whom do I identify in this story) and more aware of how my empathy choices might impact my reading of the text. What Do They Hear: Bridging the Gap Between Pulpit and Pew. (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2007).

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Who Let You In? (Matthew 22:1-14).

2019-03-18

 

All through the season of Lent, I have been inviting the people of Plymouth to ponder our motto: We Agree to Differ. We resolve to Love. We Unite to Serve.  From now through Easter, I am preaching a series of sermons on the meaning of membership at Plymouth Church. Each sermon will have two texts: the Scripture lesson assigned by the Narrative Lectionary and the church motto of Plymouth Church.

So right now my plan looks like this:

March 10                              We Agree to Differ              Matthew 18:15-35 (Forgiveness)

March 17                              We Resolve to Love             Matthew 20:1-16 (Parable of the Workers)

March 31                              We Unite to Serve                Matthew 25:1-13 (Parable of Ten Foolish Bridesmaids)

April 14                                  Join the Crowd                    Matthew 21:1-17 (Palm Sunday)

April 21                                  With Fear and Great Joy  Matthew 28:1-10 (Easter)

The series started two weeks ago with We agree to differ. (You can read that blog post here). Then last week we explored We resolve to love. (Read that blog post here).

As you can see from the schedule, this is a bye week for me. But that doesn’t mean I don’t have some thoughts! Our text for this weekend comes from Matthew 22:1-14, The Parable of the Wedding Banquet.

Once more Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying: 2‘The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son. 3He sent his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding banquet, but they would not come. 4Again he sent other slaves, saying, “Tell those who have been invited: Look, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet.” 5But they made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business, 6while the rest seized his slaves, maltreated them, and killed them. 7The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city. 8Then he said to his slaves, “The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. 9Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.” 10Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests.

11 ‘But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe, 12and he said to him, “Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?” And he was speechless.13Then the king said to the attendants, “Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” 14For many are called, but few are chosen.’

The context here is critical. Jesus has arrived in Jerusalem. This is the last week of his life –sometime after Palm Sunday and before the Last Supper. As the cross draws near, Jesus is teaching in the temple courts. And he seems a little fixated on questions of insiders and outsiders. Who is in? Who is out? And how do we know the difference?

There are different versions of this story going around, so it is important to be clear on the details of this particular iteration –which is, well, violent and weird.

A king throws a wedding banquet for his son. The invited guests do not want to come –so much so that they treat the king’s messengers with terrible violence. The king is enraged, takes his revenge on the refusing guests, and then invites a bunch of random people to a feast. But, in a strange coda, the king notices a guest without a wedding garment and has him ejected from the banquet. And, bizarrely, what had been a story about a wedding banquet suddenly turns into something cosmic, with the king tossing the guests into something that sounds a lot like hell.

What is going on here? And can this really have anything to do with the motto of Plymouth Church?

The parable may seem a little less puzzling when we realize that Matthew is wrestling with two related problems: the troubling history between Gentiles and Jews in the 1st century and the very compromised nature of the church in Matthew’s day.

First: Gentiles and Jews. In the beginning, Christianity was a movement with Judaism. But it began to spread among Gentile (non-Jewish) people. By the last 3rd of the 1st century, the church was a mixed body: Jewish-Christians and Gentile-Christians. Even in the best of times, relations between the two groups could be strained.

Then, in the year 70, disaster struck. Rome destroyed Jerusalem. The Temple was torn down, the city burned. Jews blamed Christians for this. Christians blamed Jews. And Jewish-Christians—like Matthew—were caught in the middle.

Most likely, Matthew and his fellow Jewish Christians were expelled from the synagogue after Jerusalem fell. Matthew has been badly hurt by his fellow Jews and often includes anti-Jewish polemic in his writings. Hence, this story’s narration of the people who were invited but refused to come and were punished as a result. (The Gentiles are the random people brought in from the streets).

This is EXTREMELY unfortunate.

2,000 years later, Christians have a lot to answer for in our treatment of the Jewish people. And Matthew’s Gospel must be handled carefully.

How do we do that?

In this particular instance, we might begin by recognizing that this is about insiders and outsiders. Today, when we read this, Christians are, clearly, the insiders. That is how we need to think about this story. If anybody refused God’s invitation, we did. You can see it in, among other things, the shameful ways we have treated our Jewish neighbors.

Second: the mixed body. We know from other parts of Matthew’s Gospel that he views his own church as a decidedly mixed-body: morally compromised, etc. So the story’s coda about the man not wearing a wedding garment is Matthew’s way of saying that it isn’t enough to show up for the party; you have to behave in the right way. If God’s kingdom is about love, sharing and peace, I can’t very well go in there spreading hated and hoarding my stuff and picking fights.

You are invited but you have to behave.

This is a bye week for me, so let me just offer a fleeting thought about how this might relate to our motto. We are big on welcome at Plymouth Church. Sometimes I think we simply see the motto as another way of saying “all are welcome.”

But this story shows us that there may need to be some fine print. All people are welcome; all behaviors are not. We are here to learn and grow in the love of God.

Maybe we should expect a little more of each other in that regard. Maybe that is what the motto is trying to tell us

We agree to differ. We resolve to love. We unite to serve.

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Renewing Our Covenant: We Agree to Differ (First Sermon in a Series)

2019-03-11

This sermon was preached at Plymouth Church the first weekend of Lent 2019 -MML

I.

We agree to differ. We resolve to love. We unite to serve.

 

That is the motto of Plymouth Church: a dozen little words that distill the essence of this place. And today is the first Sunday of Lent –traditionally a season to reflect, repent and prepare for the big celebration of Easter.

 

So here is what I want to do: from now through Easter, whenever I preach, I will be reflecting on our motto and on what it means to follow Jesus together here at Plymouth Church. I’m calling this sermon series Renewing our Covenant: Following Jesus in a Fractious World.

 

“Fractious.” Isn’t that a great word? It means “unruly” or “tending to be troublesome.” It feels like the right word for this moment in our culture. When political discourse devolves into people calling each other names on social media –that feels a little fractious to me. When we prefer to stay in our own separate corners; to stick with people who already share our beliefs –sure seems fractious. When friendships and family ties are stressed and strained by whatever happens to be driving the news cycle –friends, it’s getting fractious out there.

 

And, to be honest, it can feel a little fractious in here. Because at Plymouth Church, we do not all believe the same things about God, about faith, about what it means to grow in love of God and neighbor. We don’t all agree about any of that –and we say so, right there in our motto: We agree to differ.

 

But how? How do we do that? When everything feels so fractious—not only out there but sometimes in here—when things feel fractious, can we claim, and maybe even celebrate, agreeing to differ?

 

I think we can. I think we should. It will take some work. But it can be such a beautiful thing.

 

II.

Our reading for today comes from the Gospel according to Matthew. It falls in two sections. First we get some teaching from Jesus about life together in the church. Then we get a story about forgiveness. Taken together, they tell us some important things about the ways we share life together.

If you have spent any time around the United Church of Christ, the first part of this passage just feels weird. No matter who you are, no matter where you are on life’s journey, you are always welcome here. That’s what we say. If somebody at church bothers you, show them the door. That is what Jesus says. In this passage, he gives us instructions—detailed, specific, step by step instructions—for kicking people out of the church.

 

That does not sound like our motto at all. It sounds like Jesus does not agree to differ. It sounds like Jesus invites us to purge the church of people we do not like.

 

(Can you imagine the volunteers to serve on that committee?)

 

That is what it sounds like. But is that what it says? I don’t think so. One little word makes a big difference here: Sin. If anyone sins against you. That is when you confront them. That is when you show them the door. If someone is hurting you, it may be time for them to leave.

 

So please watch this carefully: What Jesus says in the first part of this passage does not have anything to do with our motto. Disagreeing is not a sin. Let me say that again for the people in the back: Jesus is talking about sin here and disagreeing with each other is not a sin.

 

But sometimes it feels like a sin. At least it does to me. Disagreement makes me uncomfortable –literally, physically uncomfortable. I squirm and flush and flop sweat. It think I am going to die. And I think I know why. In my family of origin, we were pretty enmeshed. Disagreement was not permitted. Disagreement threatened relationships. Disagreement was betrayal.

 

So I have a hard time with conflict. Whenever I disagree with somebody, my fight or flight response kicks in. I think the relationship is under threat. I think I am under threat. But one of the marks of a healthy human being is the ability to say what we believe and to stay in relationship with those who disagree.

 

I did not learn that growing up. I am trying to work on it now. And Plymouth Church gives me opportunities to practice. In saying We Agree to Differ, we recognize that we do not come to church to avoid disagreement; we come to church to discover that disagreement does not have to end a relationship. If we do it right—if we live into our covenant with one another—disagreement can make our relationships deeper and richer and more worthwhile.

 

We agree to differ.

 

But of course, that isn’t easy. It is hard to share life when we disagree with one another. It is hard, sometimes, to stay in relationship when we don’t see eye to eye.

 

How do we do it? That brings us to the second part of our passage.

 

Peter seems to see himself as some sort of spiritual athlete. And he is so pleased with himself. How often should I forgive? As many as…seven times? I mean: that’s a lot of times, Jesus! Aren’t you impressed with how forgiving I am?

 

And in this moment, I imagine Jesus…smiles. Oh, Peter. Seven times? How about…77 times?

 

Better yet: what if we stop counting altogether?

 

Once upon a time, says Jesus, there was this one guy, up to his eyeballs in debt. Medical bills, student loans, upside down in his house and his car and his boat. Debt collectors are blowing up his phone, coming over to his house. It’s a nightmare. But he begs for mercy. He promises to repay all of it. (He can’t repay any of it).

And what happens? Every dime of his debt is forgiven. The slate is wiped clean.

 

But this guy who had all the debt? He has a buddy. And last week he spotted his buddy ten bucks to get a turkey sandwich at Palmer’s. So what does he do now? He goes over to his buddy’s house, grabs him by the throat, throws against the wall and says, “Pay me back, right now, or else!”

 

The debt collectors hear about this, change their mind, revoke their forgiveness and all that debt comes due.

 

So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

 

III.

If we will succeed in sharing life together, we have to remember. Remember that you are forgiven. Remember how much grace God extends to you –all the time, every day.

(I mean, God has had to forgive me like 8 or 9 times just since I started this sermon).

Remember the grace that you have been given…and then decide how much grace you should give to your sister or brother.

 

We agree to differ, here at Plymouth Church. But if that is ever going to work—if we will ever get that right—you and I will need to extend a whole lot of grace to each other.

 

Nerd alert: I did six years in the marching band. Six years in the Williamsburg High School Blue Pirate Marching Band because, for reasons I have never entirely understood, where I come from you start the high school marching band in the 7th grade.

 

My first summer of band camp—August, 1989—was miserable and sweaty and also miserable. I was at the very peak of my physical awkwardness. And, as a kind of bonus humiliation, my big sister was the drum major.

 

It was not my favorite summer. But I learned how to march in the band –how to dress the line, how to stay in step, how to play the baritone horn while wearing ridiculous clothes.

 

And here is what I really learned: Marching in a band is mostly about staying out of each other’s way. You keep your distance from each other, you form straight lines and you all walk in the same direction.

 

Plymouth Church is not a marching band. That is what the motto says. We don’t all face the same way; we don’t all walk the same direction.

 

No, my dear friends. Plymouth Church? Plymouth Church is a dance. And if you really want to learn how to dance, your toes will get stepped on. From time to time, you may step on some toes yourself.

 

It takes a lot of grace to do this thing. But it’s worth it.

 

I’ve belonged to Plymouth Church for almost 14 years. There have been highs and there have been lows. When I look back and remember the most painful moments I have had at this church, they all seem to have one thing in common: the refusal to extend grace to one another.

 

There have been times when some of you have taken something that I said or something that I did and refused to forgive me for it. You assumed the worst, ascribed bad intentions and shared your suspicions with your friends. That hurt.

But this is Lent and, in the spirit of confession I should probably say that I know there have been moments when I have failed to extend grace to some of you; moments when I have assumed the worst about someone just because they happened to disagree with me. Some of you have stepped on my toes, and I was not gracious about it. I’m sorry.

 

It hurts, doesn’t it? And we may well wonder if it is worth it: The pain of being stepped on, the hassle of saying I’m sorry. Is it worth belonging to a place where we agree to differ?

I guess that depends on your answers to two questions:

 

Do you know how many times have you been forgiven?

 

And do you realize how beautiful it is—can you imagine how delighted God must feel—when you and I manage to dance with each other?

 

We could steer clear of each other’s toes. But then we would have to miss the dance.

 

I say we thank God and strike up the band.

 

 

 

 

 

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Applications Available for Plymouth Women’s Scholarship

2019-03-11

The Plymouth Women Scholarships are awarded once a year to two or more college students who are preparing for a career in service such as seminary, social work, education, medicine, etc. Applicants must be a junior, senior or graduate student in a college or university. Plymouth members are given preference, but any qualified person may apply.

Download the 2019 Plymouth Women Scholarship Form to apply. All forms and supporting material must be returned to the church office or submitted online to the committee chair by April 15, 2019.

The Scholarship Committee of the Board of Plymouth Women is funded by the estates of Susan B. Turner, Opal Jordan and Mary and Frederick Royal.

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Renewing Our Covenant: We Resolve to Love

2019-03-11

 

As the journey of Lent continues, so does my invitation to ponder our motto: We Agree to Differ. We resolve to Love. We Unite to Serve.  All throughout Lent, I am preaching a series of sermons on the meaning of membership at Plymouth Church. Each sermon will have two texts: the Scripture lesson assigned by the Narrative Lectionary and the church motto of Plymouth Church.

So right now my plan looks like this:

March 10                              We Agree to Differ              Matthew 18:15-35 (Forgiveness)

March 17                              We Resolve to Love             Matthew 20:1-16 (Parable of the Workers)

March 31                              We Unite to Serve                Matthew 25:1-13 (Parable of Bridesmaids)

April 14                                  Join the Crowd                    Matthew 21:1-17 (Palm Sunday)

April 21                                  With Fear and Great Joy  Matthew 28:1-10 (Easter)

Last week we started with We Agree to Differ. (You can read that blog post here). This week we move on to We Resolve to Love. And our text for reflecting on this part of the motto is a strange one: The Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard.

Matthew 20:1-16

“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. 2After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard.3When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; 4and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. 5When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. 6And 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?’ 7They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’ 8When 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.’ 9When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. 10Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. 11And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, 12saying, ‘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.’ 13But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? 14Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. 15Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ 16So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

Here is the thing about this story: It is easy to understand and hard to swallow.

But the story tells us something important about love: Love is not fair. The love of God for my fellow workers in the vineyard may not look fair to me as I understand fairness. Love does not deal in cold calculations.

The story speaks for itself: Day laborers are hired to work in a vineyard at the start of the day. And throughout that day, other workers are added –at 9, noon, 3 and even 5 pm. When the workday ends, everybody lines up to get paid. Those who worked one hour get a full day’s wages! This leads those who worked the whole day to anticipate more and to claim injustice when they receive the same amount. In response to their grumbling, the landowner reminds them that he can do whatever he wants with his own money.

For MY money, the crux of the story is in verse 15. The NRSV renders it as “Or are you envious because I am generous?” But the Greek is much more poetic than that. Literally, verse 15 says, “Is your eye evil because I am good?”

The love of God is not fair. It’s good. The grace of God is not fair. It is good. But when we look on the love of God through the lens of our own selfishness, it looks wrong. It may get our hackles up. It may make us angry.

But a lot of this depends on where we see ourselves in the story. A Charles Cousar points out in Texts for Preaching, this is a story addressed to insiders. Jesus is teaching his own disciples; those who got in on the ground floor. Of course they will identify with the workers who spent the whole day in the vineyard.

And, in my experience, most readers do that. We like to see ourselves as hard working and deserving of our wages.

But in his remarkable little book What Do They Hear?, Mark Allan Powell reminds us that our interpretation of a story depends on what he calls “empathy choices” –with which character in this story do I identify? Why? What if I tried stepping into different characters’ shoes? How would that change my understanding of the story?

In this instance, I want to push back on my own empathy choice. WHY do I identify with the workers who put in a full day? Why do I suppose that I am more like them and less like the workers who worked on hour?

And consider this: Matthew is most likely a Jewish Christian, writing his Gospel from the perspective of a Jewish Christian community. (I talked about this a couple of months ago).  As far as they are concerned, it is the Gentile Christians who are the Jane-and-Johnny-Come-Latelys.

As far as Matthew is concerned, I am the one who shows up late. And I get paid a full days’ wage.

Is that fair?

No. That’s grace.

The thing I have to ponder as I prepare to preach is this: The parable offers a stark image of the love of God. It helps us appreciate just how offensive that can be.

But our motto says We Resolve to Love. We resolve…to do away with fairness? We resolve…to treat others as they are treated in this text? We resolve to love…even at the risk of causing great offense?

It’s a lot to ponder. See you in church!

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40 Days of Lent for Folks Over 50

2019-03-04

Meaning Matters in the Second Stage of Life

If you have reached the age of 50, you know that something happens. And that something is more than just receiving an invitation to join AARP. Something happens inside and you begin asking big and deep questions, like “What does it all mean, anyway?”

Lent is a 40-day season in the church year that also asks big and deep questions. And so we have put together something called, 40 Days of Lent for Folks over 50. This is a guide to help us make Lent a season that is deeply meaningful. It is a guide to the season that includes simple suggestions to help us take on the traditional disciplines of Lent such as: scripture reading and study, prayer, and works of love. You can gather with us at church for things like Monday discussion groups and Wednesday note writing. You can follow the guide at home on your own. Or any combination that fits your lifestyle and abilities. The guide book will be available at the Welcome Desk. Or you can download an electronic copy by clicking here.

We invite you to make meaning with us during this Lenten season. Email Nancy Strickler at njpstrickler@gmail.com, and LeAnn Stubbs at lstubbs@plymouthchurch.com.

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Blog

Renewing our Covenant: We Agree to Differ

2019-03-04

 

Plymouth Church: It is time to talk about Lent.

Lent is a season of 40 days (excluding Sundays) to prepare for Easter. It is traditionally a time for fasting, repentance and self-examination. The 40 day period begins with Ash Wednesday on March 6.

(Sidebar: Join us for Ash Wednesday worship at Plymouth! There is a family service at 5:45, a sanctuary a 7:30 and a Youth service 8:30).

This year, at Plymouth Church, Lent will be a season to ponder the ways we belong to one another and to God. I’m calling it Renewing our Covenant: Following Jesus in a Fractious World.

Because at Plymouth, we have an unusual understanding of the meaning of membership. And in our increasingly divided culture, I believe the Plymouth Way of being Christian may be more relevant than ever.

For Plymouth, membership is rooted in covenant. The language of the covenant is a little old-fashioned sounding, but we have a condensed version in our church motto: We agree to differ. We resolve to love. We unite to serve.

 

Former Senior Minister Stoddard Lane gave us our motto; it is hard-won wisdom from a deeply difficult time in the history of Plymouth Church. Lane was himself no stranger to suffering. He was widowed at a young age and then left his infant child with relatives to serve as an ambulance driver in the First World War. After that he returned to pastoral ministry, coming to Plymouth in 1929 and dying in office in the year 1943.

 

Whenever I think of Stoddard lane, I think of the opening narration from my favorite movie: With the coming of the Second World War… Between the Great Depression and the onset of the World War II, these were trying times for Plymouth Church. We have, in our archives, some of the correspondence between the church and its creditors from those years. “Please give us one more month” seems to be a common refrain.

 

But Stoddard Lane must have known that that one great asset of this church is its understanding of the way we belong to one another because we belong to God. So he took our covenant and boiled it down to its essence: We agree to differ. We resolve to love. We unite to serve.

 

A dozen little words. But the more I ponder them, the more profound they seem.

 

Maybe it is just selfish; I want to reflect on the meaning of our motto. So I am taking this Lent to do just that. Starting on the weekend of March 9 and 10, I will preach a series of sermons on the meaning of membership at Plymouth Church. Each sermon will have two texts: the Scripture lesson assigned by the Narrative Lectionary and the church motto of Plymouth Church.

So right now my plan looks like this:

March 10                              We Agree to Differ              Matthew 18:15-35 (Forgiveness)

March 17                              We Resolve to Love             Matthew 20:1-16 (Parable of the Workers)

March 31                              We Unite to Serve                Matthew 25:1-13 (Parable of Bridesmaids)

April 14                                  Join the Crowd                    Matthew 21:1-17 (Palm Sunday)

April 21                                  With Fear and Great Joy  Matthew 28:1-10 (Easter)

And that means this is my Agree to Differ blog post. Our Scripture text? Some teachings about forgiveness.

Matthew 18:15-35

15“If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. 16But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 17If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.18Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. 19Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. 20For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”

21Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” 22Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times. 23“For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. 24When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; 25and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. 26So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ 27And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. 28But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, ‘Pay what you owe.’ 29Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ 30But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt. 31When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. 32Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’ 34And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. 35So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

This portion of Matthew’s Gospel deals with questions of forgiveness. The first part of the reading (verses 15-20) is didactic; it offers up some very direct instructions about dealing with sin in the church. The second part (verses 21-35) offers more teaching in the form of a story.

It is difficult to set the instructions about “another member of the church who sins against you” alongside We agree to differ. Is it one or the other? Do we have to choose?

I don’t think so. But we do have an opportunity for some much-needed clarification.

The theologians would tell you that Matthew 18:15-20 deals with church discipline, and the church historians would tell you that our particular brand of Christianity hasn’t been much into church discipline since the 18th century. Can the church police its own membership? Should we? Can we imagine a situation in which someone might be shown the door?

We at Plymouth may recoil from such a thought, but consider this: 19th century evangelist Charles Finney denied communion to slaveholders.  Wasn’t that the right thing to do? (Hint: It was!)

But if we set this alongside the motto, something else becomes clear: Disagreeing with each other is not a sin. Because of our family of origin or a conflict-avoidant style, some of us are wired to FEEL like disagreement is a sin. But it isn’t. That is what the motto says. So when Jesus talks about someone who sins against me, he isn’t talking about someone who disagrees with me. He is talking about someone who hurts me.

As for the second section…I think Jesus’ story invites us to distinguish between a negative approach to agreeing to differ and a positive approach to agreeing to differ. A negative agreeing to differ is the attitude that says “You go to your corner; I’ll go to mine. And as long as we don’t have to cross each other’s paths, we can both belong to this church.” Plymouth is a big enough place that we can and often do fall into this pattern. “Agreeing to differ” means “leaving each other alone.”

But Jesus’ story suggests a positive approach to agreeing to differ: What if we interacted often enough and honestly enough that we stepped on each other’s toes? Well, we would probably need to extend and receive a lot of forgiveness. And how do we do that? By remembering how much we have been forgiven.

In other words, Agreeing to Differ isn’t about keeping our distance from what another; it is about deep and honest connection. God’s love and forgiveness create the context where that is possible.

We agree to differ. Because we are loved. Because we have been forgiven.

See you in church!

 

 

1ST LENT BLOG BONUS MATERIAL

In July of 2011, I had to preach a brief sermon on Matthew 18:21-35 for a class I was taking. So far as I know, I have never shared that sermon anywhere else…so I thought I would do it here.

 Then Peter came and said to him, ‘Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?’

 

Two. My niece Katy was two, maybe two and a half years old. I was home visiting from college.  She is a sophisticated and somewhat surly teenager now, almost old enough to drive, but back when she was two and I was 20, Katy adored me. The feeling was mutual. But on this particular visit, our relationship hit its first rocky moment. I never saw it coming. She gladly held my hand as we walked to the car, accepted me help getting into the car seat.  But when I reached for the straps to buckle her in—something I had done many, many times before—when I reached for the straps to buckle her into her car seat, something inside of her snapped.  Her face grew stern, her eyes fierce. Indignantly she exclaimed, “I do it MYSELF.”

 

I was first surprised at this sudden, stubborn assertion of independence. And then I was shocked, in that moment, by how much I loved her.

 

*                      *                      *                      *

 

I know a guy who went through a phase in his life when he only owned wicker furniture –the lightweight stuff, with cushions, the kind of thing you might put out on your back porch when the weather gets warm. He only owned wicker furniture because that, whenever it came time for him to move, he could just…do it. He could do it all by himself. You’ve got to hand it to him, it was a foolproof system. The only problem was…he always had to sit on wicker furniture. Maybe that was what he wanted, but I imagine it would get old after awhile.

 

 

*                      *                      *                      *

 

How often should I forgive? As many as seven times?’

 

As is so often the case, Peter just doesn’t get it. He wants so badly to assert his independence, to stand on his own two feet, to do it himself. And he is so pleased, so proud. He just can’t help but brag.

 

Have you heard of this thing called the humble brag? That is where you try to brag about yourself without appearing to brag about yourself. I guess it happens a lot on Twitter: Can you believe they let me into Princeton? I think Peter attempts a common variation here    –the question brag. (This is often heard in seminary classrooms). It’s asking a question that mostly serves to show how smart or sophisticated or pious you are. ‘Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as…seven times?’  I mean, that’s a lot of times…right? And I did it all by myself.

 

But Jesus can barely keep a straight face. Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.

 

No, Peter doesn’t get it. But I have a hunch that Jesus gets him. And in this moment, I think Peter would be shocked to discover how much Jesus loves him.