When Steadfast Love and Faithfulness Meet

Hosea 5:25-6:6
David A. Davis
June 11, 2023
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Plucking a few verses to read from one of the books of the Hebrew prophets is sort of like walking into the middle of an ongoing conversation, often a tense conversation. Imagine yourself walking up to two of your friends at a party. It’s one of those times where the two say hello and give you a nice smile but they clearly have no intention of changing whatever topic they are talking about. So, you just listen for a while, feeling a bit awkward standing there with your plate of cheese and crackers. The conversation seems a bit intense, but it takes you a few moments in their exchange to have any idea what they are talking about. Soon enough you catch on that they are airing differing opinions, differing strong opinions. The topic itself could be almost anything: news from the front page, politics, a local school issue, the starting lineup on a kids’ soccer team, or parenting. Once you figure out what they’re talking about, you start to scan the room for another face, another snack, you plan your exit strategy because this conversation was not how you planned to spend a Friday evening.

Reading our text for this morning from the prophet Hosea is sort of like finding yourself in the middle of a tense conversation. But the talk is not about a topic, or a disagreement. The conversation is about the relationship. You’re invited over to a friend’s house for dinner. You watch almost in slow motion without any ability to stop it as Lizette, your best from high school, and her mother start to hash out more than a few things right there at the table you wish you could crawl under. You’re out at a restaurant with a couple you’ve known for years and the evening starts to turn. A comment here, an attempt at humor there and you watch a depth of brokenness and hurt rise to the surface. Those kinds of moments when you can sense the tension in the room before the words come out. The kind of encounter where you realize there’s more going on than you can really know; that there’s a whole more here than meets the eye, or the ear.

The book of Hosea is about relationship, faithfulness, unfaithfulness. It’s about figuring out relationship amid all kinds of outside distractions. It’s about attending to relationship when there are numerous challenges and complexities that are tearing away at that primary love and devotion, when there are objects and forces and others competing for such love and devotion, when the everyday and often harsh realities of living in tumultuous times threaten even the best of relationship, and its love and devotion. Hosea is a book about relationship written at a time when Israel’s religious life was again threatened by idolatrous practices, politics, and the ambition and power of world leaders. As one commentator put it, “the nation was without a moral compass and headed in a disastrous direction.” This morning you and I are walking into the middle of a really tough and tense conversation between God and God’s people. A conversation that happens at a time when the world around is falling apart around and the relationship between them is hanging by a thread.

It’s God we hear first. “I am going back to my place until my people acknowledge their guilt and seek my face. In their distress, they are going to beg for my favor.”

Then comes the response from the people. “Come, let us return to the Lord. It is the Lord who has torn and the Lord who will heal. God who has struck us down, God who will bind us up. In two days God will revive us. On the third day God will raise us up so we can once again live before the Lord. Let us know, let us press on, let us press on to know, let us press on to know the Lord. God’s presence is as sure as the rising sun. The Lord will surely come to us like showers, like spring rains. Come, let us return, let us sing, let us pray, let us adore the one who waters the earth!”

“What am I going to do with you? What am I going to do with you? What am I supposed to do”, says the Lord. “Your love, it’s like a morning cloud that burns off as the sun comes up, like a morning dew that goes away so early. What am I supposed to do with that? What am going to do with you?

In the drama of the Book of Hosea, the Lord breaks the fourth wall and now turns to those of us who are quickly becoming uncomfortable as we listen in. God turns away from those expressing what must be fleeting devotion with empty words and God addresses the audience that now finds itself unable to turn away from the awkwardness. God turns to those of us who are leaning in. “I have snipped, trimmed, and cut them back by the prophets, just about killed them with my words, my judgment could not be more clear, it goes forth like the light. What am I supposed to do?  And now speaking, pleading, to any and all who would listen then, now, and forever, God proclaims, “For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings”. Steadfast love and not sacrifice.”

Like a lover who knows that their Beloved is just not getting it, God shakes a head, and with a broken heart, whispers and repeats just about forever, “steadfast love…steadfast love….steadfast love.”  God forever repeating “steadfast love”.

According to Matthew, Jesus was at dinner in a house with many tax collectors and sinners came and were sitting with him and his disciples. The Pharisees saw this dinner party unfolding before their holy eyes and they said to the followers of Jesus, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” Jesus, of course, heard their grumbling, It wasn’t because Jesus had miraculous, messianic ears that he knew what they said.  It was because most self-righteous, arrogantly pious people are really unable to whisper. Jesus said, “Those who are well have no need of a doctor, but only those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.” I desire mercy, not sacrifice. Jesus quoting Hosea. God repeating forever, “steadfast love”, mercy, in Hebrew, hesed.

One day on the Sabbath, Jesus and his disciples were walking through a grainfield. The disciples are hungry so they began to pluck the heads of grain and eat. In the narrative, the Pharisees miraculously appear like paparazzi not there to take pictures but to speak for the law and for all things religious. “Your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath.”  Jesus gave them a piece of his mind; mentioning David, the temple, priests, the sabbath, and the Son of Man. “If you had only known what this means,” Jesus says, ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice’, you would not have condemned the guiltless.” Jesus didn’t stop there with just his words. He leaves that field, goes straight to the synagogue, and heals the man with the withered hand. He heals him on the Sabbath! (Mt 12) Mercy, not sacrifice. Jesus quoting, living the prophet’s words. God repeating forever, “steadfast love”, mercy, in Hebrew, hesed.

Hesed. As in the words of the psalmist: “Let me hear what God the Lord will speak, for God will speak peace to God’s people, to the Lord’s faithful, to those who turn to God in their hearts. Surely God’s salvation is at hand for those who fear the Lord, that God’s glory may dwell in our Land. Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet, righteousness and peace will kiss each other. Faithfulness will spring up from the ground, and righteousness will look down from the sky.” (Ps 85). Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet. Hesed and faithfulness will meet. Hesed.

As in the prophet Micah: “The Lord has told you what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? Love kindness. Kindness. Or in Hebrew, hesed. Kindness. Mercy Steadfast love. God repeating forever, to God’s people, to the followers of Jesus, to the church, to you, to me…steadfast love. Hesed.

Professor Kathi Sakenfeld suggests in an entry to a dictionary of the Old Testament that hesed pretty much sums up the Ten Commandments in one word. My friend Rabbi Adam Feldman once told me that hesed is kindness in action. Not just a one off, not just kindness here and there, but kindness over and over and over again. At a time when the world around is falling apart around and the relationship is hanging by a thread, God calls God’s people to kindness, to mercy, to steadfast love. Hesed.

Twice in Matthew Jesus quotes Hosea. In the New Testament Greek, the word translates as “mercy” or “compassion”. Interestingly, if I have done my homework right, the term “steadfast love” never appears in the New Testament. It is as if the New Testament writers, the translators, they knew that “steadfast love” was best understood in the life, ministry, healing, mercy, love, and compassion of Jesus himself. That when it came to “steadfast love” they could only point to him. Jesus as the embodiment and definition of steadfast love. In Christ Jesus, God repeating forever, “steadfast love”. I desire steadfast love, not sacrifice.

The Old Testament, the Hebrew Bible, on the other hand, is absolutely full of “steadfast love”, of hesed. The Book of Psalms overflows with steadfast love almost always in reference to the steadfast love of God. Hosea, Micah and the other prophets make the turn to call for the steadfast love, mercy, and kindness from the people of God. At first blush, it would seem strange to suggest that love, kindness, and mercy is prophetic. That love, kindness, and mercy is a threat to the powers of the empire, the principalities of the culture, and those who so deftly distort the gospel for their own gain. That when the faithfulness of the people of God was being threatened by idolatrous practices, politics, and the ambition and power of leaders, that the prophets of God would boldly, clearly, prophetically call for steadfast love, mercy, and kindness.

Who would have thought that steadfast love on the loose among God’s people was prophetic? But it is. At a time and in a world and in a nation where hatred and vitriol and bigotry and calls for violence rule the day, often by those who invoke the name “Christian”? Yes, standing for steadfast love is prophetic. At a time and in a world and in a nation where voices of blasphemy can be heard in pulpits, on airwaves, and in the halls of government invoking the evil idolatry of Christian nationalism? Yes, kindness in action over and over and over again is prophetic. At a time and in a world and in a nation where 11 million children live in poverty, and as Matt Desmond cites in his new book Poverty, by America, 1 and 25 Americans over the age of 65 would have to double their income to make it to the poverty line? Yes, an infectious mercy that inspires a will to work for the common good is prophetic. At a time and in a world and in a nation where the right for women and girl’s to have full access to healthcare and privacy has been weaponized and used to demonize, where the right to love and marry who you want isn’t only under siege once again it may be a threat to your safety, where teaching American history including the teaching of what the patriotic song “American the Beautiful” refers as “thine every flaw” can get an educator fired or worse when it comes to the vigilantism of social media? Yes, an ardent call for steadfast love for all people is prophetic.

Jesus said, “Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’” The Apostle Paul wrote “Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.” You and I bearers of the steadfast love of Jesus Christ into the world. “Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet”, the psalmist writes. At this time, in this world, in this nation, it seems to me that your life of discipleship and mine is all about how and where his steadfast love and our faithfulness meet.

The only thing more awkward than walking into the middle of a tense conversation about a relationship is walking in on a conversation and realizing it has everything to do with you.



Just a Few

Matthew 28:16-20
David A. Davis
June 4, 2023
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“Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw Jesus, they worshipped him; but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority…”. The eleven disciples went to Galilee. That’s the original twelve minus the one; Judas the betrayer. They went to the mountain to which Jesus directed them. You remember that mountain visits in the biblical tradition are not to be taken for granted. Important things happen on mountains. Matthew works very hard to portray Jesus as the Great Teacher in the tradition of Moses. The call of Moses at the burning bush happened up on Mt. Horeb. The Ten Commandments on Mt Sinai. Elijah and the still small voice was on a mountain. Here in the gospel of Matthew: there is the Sermon on the Mount and the Mount of Transfiguration, the feeding of thousands happens up on a mountain, and Jesus heads to a mountain for solitary prayer. And here at the end of Matthew, just the other side of Easter morning, soon after the Mary’s went to the tomb, the eleven disciples when to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. Important things in the bible happen on mountains.

The Risen Christ. Eleven disciples. A mountain. Matthew tells that “when they saw Jesus, they worshiped him, but some doubted.” You and I, the gospel’s readers, the church, we start to look around that mountain and do a head count. Some doubted. There are only eleven and “some” means more than one. “Some” seems more than a few. There’s no intimate embrace with Thomas complete with scarred hands and feet. That’s John. This isn’t that account of Christ being revealed in teaching all the scriptures had to say about him and in the breaking of the bread. That’s Luke. But this is a mountain. Important things in the bible happen on mountains. Important, decisive, divinely clarifying things happen on mountains. The risen Christ. The eleven. And a mountain. And Mathew writes “But some doubted.”

The newest published edition of the New Revised Standard Version bible, rather awkwardly labeled “The New Revised Standard Version Updated Edition”, adds a twist on worship and doubt. The translation reads like this: “Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw him, they worshiped him, but they doubted.” The eleven all worshiped. The eleven all doubted. The same disciples worshiped and doubted. Not doubting Thomas and few others. All of them. No inner circle of the more faithful disciples. All of them. Worship and doubt all within the same disciples. That’s provocative. That’s compelling. That’s really comforting. “When they saw him, they worshiped him, but they doubted.”

I texted New Testament Professor Eric Baretto from my study after I came upon, what was for me, at least, a rather mind-blowing revelation. How many preachers have that privilege? Eric texted back in seconds. ….. In the presence of the Risen Christ on a mountain, the eleven disciples worshiped him and doubted. Doubted and worshiped him. It is both the worship and the doubt that invites you and me to that mountaintop. Into the mysterious space created by worship and doubt, the Risen Christ breathes the Great Commission. On a mountain clouded by a decidedly human mixture of doubt and Jesus, Jesus give the Great Commission. With Matthew seemingly acknowledging the questioning, searching, vulnerable souls of those eleven and all the disciples of Jesus Christ that were to come after, the Risen and Glorified Christ sculpts the Great Commission. “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

Go. Make. Baptize. Teach. It’s hard to miss the multiple action verbs that fill the Great Commission. Christ’s sending of the church. With all the authority of heaven and the breadth of the Triune understanding of God and the mandate to cover everything that Jesus taught, those eleven were sent. The church’s eleven were sent to embody, to live into, to witness to the very nature of God uniquely revealed in the ministry of Jesus: his teaching, his healing of the sick, his care for the poor, his touching of the unclean, his eating with sinners, his challenge to the powerful, his work for justice, his call for righteousness, his suffering on the cross, his self-emptying, his death and his resurrection. Jesus sent them to embody the breadth of God’s love. Entrusted with task of carrying out the very mission of God. As God sent Jesus into the world, as Jesus sent the first disciples into the world, so Christ sends the church, in the power of the Holy Spirit, to show forth God’s love for all. Important things in the bible happen on mountains. Here, in the mysterious space created by worship and doubt, the Risen Christ breathes the mission of God to just a few.

In his book, The Continuing Conversion of the Church, Darrell Guder lifts up the task-oriented nature of the Great Commission. “The commission doesn’t stand at the end of some religious quest for meaning”, Dr. Guder writes. He goes on to argue that commission results from an ever-present encounter with God in Christ as the church goes about its witness, its task, it’s life. This is to say, though Christ Jesus gave life to the Great Commission in that mysterious space created by worship and doubt, the lasting promise of God comes to life amid the verbs. The assurance of Christ, “I will be with you always” comes in the going, the making, the baptizing, the teaching. It is in the doing, in the living, in the serving, in the loving that the church remembers, experiences, and lives the everlasting promise of Jesus.

Just two Sundays ago we celebrated confirmation here at Nassau. Mark Edwards quite remarkably wove the words of the confirmands into a really compelling and moving sermon. The quotes Mark shared were from the narratives of their faith journey and their faith statements shared with the Session the evening they were received as members. I had the privilege along with the elders to read all of what they wrote. As Mark preached, I remembered what I thought as I read them in my office. In some way, shape, or form, all of our confirmands were very honest about their doubts and all of them expressed that they were confident in God’s love for them and how nothing could ever take God’s love for them away. I sat right here during Mark’s sermon and thought, “wow, it worked. Nassau Church did what God calls us to do!” for there is no higher calling in the church than to send young people out into the world with God’s love deeply planted in them and knowing that Jesus will be with them forever. A sanctuary full of the followers of Jesus, and just about eleven of them standing around the baptismal fount expressing their worship and their doubt. And somewhere in the kingdom of heaven that morning two Sundays ago Jesus turned to those first disciples and said, “Now that’s a Great Commission.”

Two, three, eleven at a time. More often than not, the Great Commission happens just a few at time. God calling disciples to live into the task God sets before them. Not that the world might be conquered, but that the kingdom might come. Sunday after Sunday you and I find ourselves in a broken gathering easily identified by the sacred mix of worship and doubt. Into this space, Christ breathes his great commission. His call to you, to me.  In the going, the making, the baptizing, the teaching, the loving, the forgiving…the doing. The Great Commission embodied in the likes of you and me. Sent out from here, sent from Christ’s Table, to carry out the mission of God and in the doing, experience the everlasting promise of Jesus. “I will be with you always.”


Do Not Be Far From Me

Matthew 27:22-31
Mark Edwards
May 21, 2023
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Welcome Confirmands. Welcome congregation. Welcome Skye Aurora. Welcome families and guests. On a lovely morning, the first day of our summer schedule, we gather.  We gather. It is what the church does. It gathers.  As the community of those who are “called out,” the church walks out and away from some things, and toward and around someone else. It gathers around Christ. It gathers those who have been there before and also gathers in those who are new.  Today we do a bit of both.  Some in the room have been here many many years, and today they are being Confirmed, having been baptized here 15 years ago.  Some in the room are probably newer, even as full adults or older.  And so we gather around each other, these confirmands, and Christ. Who is this Christ?

In the liturgical calendar, today is Ascension Sunday. Ascension Sunday celebrates when, post-resurrection, after forty days on earth in the mode of God, Jesus ascends into the heavens.  It is the great, “Beam me up” event in the Christian church. It is a celebratory, triumphant, cosmic proclamation of Christ’s ascent to the divine summit. The Romans couldn’t hold him. The disciples couldn’t hold him. Gravity couldn’t hold him. Death couldn’t even hold him. Jesus, the unrestrainable helium balloon floats through the world’s upper limit. He has been raised. He lives, he commands, he preaches, he cooks fish, poofs from one place to another on a road to Emmaus, and then ascends to the ‘right hand of God the father Almighty.’  Victory.  Lordship. Cosmic overcoming. It is finished. The ceiling can’t hold him. It’s hard to beat that.

We too will have, in just a few minutes, our Confirmands come forward. They will ascend a step or two and proclaim their faith in this Christ. It’s been a year of thinking about this and talking about this. “After some long and deep thought (and a lot of pacing around,) however, I have finally found an answer that I could honestly and wholeheartedly express.” (Andrew).  We have ascended over doubt and confusion. We have ascended into conviction. We have ascended into faith.

Why then, the harsh scripture readings?:

22 Pilate said to them, Then what should I do with Jesus who is called the Messiah?” All of them said, Let him be crucified!”

While the politicians of boast of power, while the wise of the age assume this to be an empty myth, a ninth grader knows that here, here are the words of life:

Rachel: I knew no matter what happened at school, I would always have the church. Using the lyrics to a classic Vacation Bible School song Gods everlasting love is higher, higher than the skies”. This is how I understand it. Gods love is so deep it is deeper than the deepest seas. Except, understand” is not the most accurate representation of how I comprehend Gods love. It is actually the opposite. I do not understand how something can be endless. As a human, everything I have known is terminating. From simple experiences such as finishing an ice cream cone, to the end of someones life, it is impossible for me to conceptualize something that will never run out, never become spoiled, never die, and is never ending.

Throughout Jesuss lifetime, he experiences ending. For example, the death of Joseph his father and broken friendship with his disciple Judas. These happenings Jesus experienced on Earth can be paralleled to experiences all humans and I have. The biggest one, Jesuss death on the cross. All humans experience death. Except death is not Jesuss ending.

24 So when Pilate saw that he could do nothing but rather that a riot was beginning, he took some water and washed his hands before the crowd, saying, I am innocent of this mans blood;[k] see to it yourselves.”

Ella, you too understand: This is what I believe, you write. I believe in a loving, understanding, selfless and forgiving God. He is our father, our creator, and someone to lean on when questioning the difficulties of life. […] I believe that Jesus Christ is the son of God who was born of the Virgin Mary to spread the word of God and was crucified, killed, buried and rose again.

If Christ “rose again,” why do we focus so much on the “crucified, killed, buried.”  If God is our Creator, why is there so much “questioning the difficulties of life.”  And yet there is, and we do.

As Pilate himself asks:   24 Why, what evil has he done?”25 Then the people as a whole answered, His blood be on us and on our children!”

This blood, this cross. Bailey, you also know there is something powerful about this cross, that it is the way to truth.

Every morning I start my day the same. Get up, shower, get dressed, and put on my cross. Although its a small detail, the last one is the most important to me. My cross symbolizes my religion to myself and others. Im proud to be a Christian and Im proud to show the world that I am. However, I mainly wear my cross for myself. Its a simple reminder to myself to keep the lord in mind with every step I take. It helps me to remember that Jesus died on the cross for us, and that I should live a life that Im proud to live, and that Jesus would approve of.

26 So Pilate released Barabbas for them, and after flogging Jesus he handed him over to be crucified.

What, we might ask, does Jesus approve of? An about to be the newest member of the church already has the answer:

Liam: There is a statement from the passage titled Philippians 2:3-11 (NRSV) that reads, Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves.” I wanted to touch on this because this is what I believe all people should try to do even if it doesnt seem like the right time or place or situation. People should look to regard others more than themselves in my opinion. Most people probably think oh well Jesus should help the less fortunate but it is not Jesus who should help, it is the people of the world that need to acknowledge a problem and with the guidance of Jesus resolve it. Jesus is not the one doing all the work, rather, it is the people of the world.

27 Then the soldiers of the governor took Jesus into the governors headquarters,[l] and they gathered the whole cohort around him. 28 They stripped him and put a scarlet robe on him, 29 and after twisting some thorns into a crown they put it on his head.

More wisdom from confused confirmands:

Ryan: I felt like this whole presbyterian” thing was so much work and that I was forever going to stay confused, uncertain. But the opposite of faith is certainty” (as Annalise said). So now I think I realize, you don’t need all the answers to know God. After hearing this, I realize that everything that was confusing before makes perfect sense. We learn these bible stories about Jesus teaching people Gods way so that we can become closer with God.

29b They put a reed in his right hand and knelt before him and mocked him, saying, Hail, King of the Jews!”

Charlotte: Growing up, church was like the sun to me. My early childhood revolved around a star that shone brighter than any individual key planet.

When the pandemic hit, everything stood still. The revolving planets kept revolving, but the sun shone less and less. The pull for the warmth, for the growth, for the family was blocked by a pile of bricks. My life, my weeks dont revolve around the church anymore, […] The belief in something better, of Jesus and God, the belief that what I grew up with was true flashed out as quickly as it flashed in.

46 My God my god, why have you forsaken me?

And yet… A sun, a star, a constant, a home, a never fading mass at the center of my galaxy. […] I have faith that there is something greater in the universe that connects the world together. Within my faith is love, within my faith is pain, within my faith is family.

Charlotte with your conviction that “Jesus is the living God” we might get syllogistic: Within this Jesus is love, within this Jesus is pain, within this Jesus is family.

30 They spat on him and took the reed and struck him on the head.31 After mocking him, they; They : THEY

Here is a beaten God. Here is a humiliated God. Here is a community gathered around him.  A community, even here. Even in this violence, here is Christ your Lord

Peter: He helped me get through times when I didn’t understand what was happening, when I was asking the question why, why is this happening? One good example of it was when I was 13 years old, I got sick with kidney stones. Who gets kidney stones at the age of 13? Why me? I had to have surgery. I couldnt understand why this was happening to me. At that time I spent a lot of time praying and trusting God. God always has a path, and I know God will take care of me and the people I care about. I trust God, I trust that he will guide me through good times and bad times.

Here is a patient God. Here is an honest God. While the idols of the world prove themself false in the inability or unwillingness to suffer disgrace, here is a community gathered around the true unknown God .  A community, even here. Even in this violence and uncertainty, here is Love providential.

Cyrus: Saying to my parents goodbye” or love you” in the morning before I go to school shows affection and love. It’s important for me to say these phrases to my parents because I never know if I might see them again. This is my love is key to my faith. Having love will help me understand God. In Romans 8 verse 28 We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.” Having love for God will make all things work out.

What amazes us? As we gather around today, we are less amazed by a God who flies through air, than a God who gasps for breath.  We are not as awed by a beam me up event as we are by take up my cross tragedy.   We do not fall silent by an ascent up the Everest of divine pride, but by an ascent onto Golgotha,  the Place of the Skull, a mount of human pain.  We are amazed by the ascent upon a crucifix.   Today we gather around the one who suffered, tho one who was lost, the one of whom it is said:

 42 He saved others; he cannot save himself.”

Correction: He saved others, he will not save Himself.  But he has saved us.

This one is our Lord. We put our trust in him.

As it says behind me: This Lord is near to all who call upon him.

This is our savior. In this one is love. This been done for us.

And so we say: come Lord Jesus, come quickly.

Do not be far from us. AMEN.



Acts 17:16-34
David A. Davis
May 14, 2023
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Paul was waiting for Silas and Timothy in Athens. While he had a few hours, a few days, he wandered around the city getting more and more distressed. Paul found the city “so full of idols”. Distressed. “Deeply distressed,” the bible says.  Other translations describe Paul’s spirit being provoked. His soul being revolted. The city was so full of idols was poking at the bear of the classically educated, rhetorically gifted evangelist, apostle, and follower of Jesus. The more time he spent, the more Paul went looking for an argument. He argued in the synagogue with the Jewish leaders and the kind of devout people who hung out there; “what about all these idols?” Out in the marketplace, he stopped people to argue. Every day Paul went out there to argue with “those who happened to be there.” He debated the philosophers and some who just thought he was a babbler and others who just assumed he was proclaiming some sort of other foreign gods. With his argument, Paul was “telling the good news about Jesus and the resurrection.” In the city full of idols, people assumed he was pitching another one. A city so full of idols where the flow of words never stopped and argument was entertainment. Where world views clashed for sport and all babblers were welcome, Paul was stoked for the argument.

So, some hustled Paul away. “They took him and brought him to the Areopagus”. Scholars disagree about the nature of this change of venue. The move from the marketplace to the Areopagus. Was Paul being seized, bound, and hauled into a trial at the Areopagus? Or was Paul being invited to a place away from the chaos, just beyond the marketplace, far away from the synagogue? A place where he could offer his argument. The answer is yes; both. The Areopagus. A place referred to in other translations as Mars Hill. The Areopagus is both a particular place (Mars Hill) and a reference to the council of leaders that met to hear cases, do public business and talk about more serious things in a less carnival more meaningful atmosphere. “All the Athenians and the foreigners living there would spend time in nothing but telling or hearing something new.” Paul, stood before an adversarial and threatening world that, at the same time, craved telling and hearing something new. A world where arguments ruled the day.

You and I find ourselves smack in the middle of the Areopagus more often than we could ever imagine. A place where knowledge and experience of God are challenged by the height and depth of culture. A place that both craves and demands the most basic understandings of the Christian faith be translated afresh. Where you communicate and so live your faith in an ever-changing, increasingly complex, exponentially more diverse world. A place where conversations about God’s love and grace and promise come with higher stakes, where the content of speech and the behavior of life really matter. Just beyond the chaos. On the other side of the marketplace. Far away from church. Where our lives are asked to speak. You and I find ourselves smack in the middle of the Areopagus all the time.

Paul rises in the scared space of secular thought poised for an argument. One can actually diagram, and analyze Paul’s speech at Mars Hill with all of the tools of classical rhetorical criticism. One can dissect his sermon and evaluate it like something from a debate competition. But by Book of Acts standards, where time after time, thousands upon thousands would join the community of faith, the followers of Christ, where multitudes would offer their lives in response to the spoken word and the work of the Holy Spirit, the response from those listening to Paul at the Areopagus was much less robust, far less miraculous, maybe, in comparison to those other accounts of gospel proclamation, even a bit tepid. “When they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some scoffed; but others said ‘We will hear you again about this.’ At that point, Paul left them. But some of them join him and became believers, including  Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris, and others with them.” Doesn’t quite sound like Paul won the argument. Paul hardly carried the day there at Mars Hill.

But then again, the gospel never was intended to be about winning, was it? The gospel never was going to be about being first. The life, the teaching, the suffering, the death, and the resurrection of Jesus was always going to be foolishness, folly in the face of the wisdom of this world. Or as Paul writes in I Corinthians, “For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation to save those who believe.” Paul must have known it was never about winning the argument. It wasn’t about an argument. It was about pointing to a Living God, a God not far from each one of us. A creator God, the one who made the world and everything in it. A God who cannot be shaped by human hands or reduced to this shrine or that idol. As if God needed anything from human hands, or that God depends on our human ability to define or defend or declare. This Living God gives to every mortal, to everyone, God gives life and breath. God gives all things and God is not far from each one of us. It is not an argument. It’s the affirmation of life in God’s hands; a life where maybe the best we can do is search for, reach for, fumble after in the yearning to find God, the Living God. Remembering, that in our fumbling, by grace alone, God has already found us. God already holds us. In the words of the psalmist: “O Lord you have searched me and known me… You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me.” Our fumbling, feeble selves and the steadfast, unconditional love of our searching God. It’s not about winning the argument, it is about pointing to the Living God made known to us in Jesus Christ with the broken witness of our lives.

I was with 25 of my Presbyterian pastor colleagues this week in Indianapolis. Our guest lecturer shared the statistic that more than 70% of congregations in the Presbyterian Church (USA) have 150 members or less. More than a third of those have under 50 members. That was prior to the pandemic so the number is higher now. Congregations the size of Nassau Church and those bigger make up 1.5% of the total congregations in the PCUSA. It is sort of a staggering statistic. The speaker also referenced the Pew Study from several years ago that said that those who express no religious preference in this country now exceed the number of those who identify as Roman Catholics or Evangelicals and far exceed Presbyterians or Methodists or Lutherans. Interestingly, 61% of those “nones” respond that they believe in God and 31% say they pray at least once a week. An interesting twist on the interpretation is the use of the data.  One can wring hands and bemoan such metrics, searching for the reasons, the places, and the people to blame. One can call for better preaching, better arguments, better strategy, and better answers from the church and its leaders. The trend began before almost all of us were born. And the gospel never was about winning or being first. When you put these statistics together, it’s pretty clear that long before any of the “religiously unaffiliated” hear from me they will talking to you.

You and I can ponder that day and affirm again that we find ourselves smack in the middle of the Areopagus more often than we could ever imagine. A place where knowledge and experience of God are challenged by the height and depth of culture. A place that both craves and demands the most basic understandings of the Christian faith be translated afresh. Where you communicate and so live your faith in an ever-changing, increasingly complex, exponentially more diverse world. A place where conversations about God’s love and grace and promise come with higher stakes, where the content of speech and the behavior of life really matter. Just beyond the chaos. On the other side of the marketplace. Far away from church. Where our lives are asked to speak.

The followers of Jesus are called to point to the Living God for in God we live and move and have our being. Those who take the name of Jesus are called to live in response to and point to the beauty of God’s love, God’s grace, God’s forgiveness, God’s hope, God’s promise with the everydayness of our lives. Always knowing and never forgetting that in our fumbling, bumbling witness, that beauty of God goes before us and comes behind us and has long ago, taken hold of us.

One afternoon last week our group went to a museum in Indianapolis called “The Newfields.” They currently have an incredible immersive exhibit of the Impressionist Monet and friends and late 19th century Paris. After I experienced the exhibit, I came upon a room with portraits on the wall that at first blush look like works of Monet. I stood at one of the computer kiosks, took a selfie, hit submit, and within a minute or two my portrait was up on the wall in a beautiful frame. You won’t be surprised that my selfie skills are pretty fumbling even on a computer with directions that made it impossible to mess up. The technology transforms those selfies with colors and brush strokes to make them radiant with the beauty of Impressionist art. My head shot up there on the wall almost looked like something Monet would paint. My fumbling, bumbling selfie was surrounded, touched by a timeless beauty.

You and I find ourselves smack in the middle of the Areopagus more often than we could ever imagine. When our lives speak, by God’s grace and the power of the Holy Spirit, they speak with the color and the brush stroke of the very beauty of God. Because in our fumbling, bumbling yearning to find God and point to God in this blasted world in which we live, God has already found us and holds us tight. And out there where conversations about God’s and God’s longing for peace, righteousness, justice, and wholeness to forever change the world, out there where the conversations come with higher stakes, where the content of speech and the behavior of life really matters, out there all we have to do, what we get to do, is point to the beauty of God’s love, God’s grace, God’s forgiveness, God’s hope, God’s promise with the everydayness of our lives.


Craving the Ordinary

Acts 2:37-47
David A. Davis
May 7, 2023
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They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Awe and wonder and joy and generosity and mercy were all on the move among them. The apostles’ themselves were drawing on the Spirit of God and their ministry among them was full of wonder and signs of God’s presence, God’s grace, God’s resurrection power. Those who believed were together. They had all things in common. Possessions, goods, and proceeds were shared. The needs of all were met. They spent a lot of time together in the temple. They broke bread from house to house to house. They ate. They worshipped. They prayed. They demonstrated the goodness of God to all people. Day by day. Day by day God added to their number those who were being saved. Day by day.

Studying, learning, and growing in the faith of Jesus Christ. Fellowship, generosity, sharing, caring for those in need, demonstrating the goodness of God. Breaking bread, praising God, and testifying to the signs and wonders of God. And prayer. Day by day. Day by day.

Our text this morning provides a description of life in the community of faith in the hours and days after Pentecost. Pentecost when all were filled with the Holy Spirit and there was a sound like a mighty wind coming from heaven. All were speaking in tongues. An incredible gathering of devout Jews every nation under heaven. Each one heard talk of God’s deeds of power in their own language. People were amazed and perplexed. Observers thought the crowd had too much wine on the morning of Pentecost. Amazing. Perplexing. Luke’s account of the morning of Pentecost is near the top of the list in terms of the miraculous when it comes to the strange old world of the bible.

Later that day, and in the days ahead, day by day. Studying, learning, and growing in the faith of Jesus Christ. Fellowship, generosity, sharing, caring for those in need, demonstrating the goodness of God. Breaking bread, praising God, and testifying to the signs and wonders of God. And prayer. Day by day. Day by day. The text offers a glimpse of church life of the earliest followers of Jesus.

Peter’s Pentecost sermon cuts to the heart of all who were listening. When they ask what they should do, Peter tells to “Repent and be baptized”. He promises them the gift of the Holy Spirit. “For the promise is for you, and for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls…” The bible says that “about three thousand people were added.” Saved. Saved from the corrupt generation. In real-time the sermon had to have been as divinely inspired and directed as the breathtaking events of the mighty wind, the tongues as of fire, the great gathering from every nation. Three thousand were added to those who would become known as the Body of Christ.

And then, later that day, and in the days ahead, day by day. Studying, learning, and growing in the faith of Jesus Christ. Fellowship, generosity, sharing, caring for those in need, demonstrating the goodness of God. Breaking bread, praising God, and testifying to the signs and wonders of God. And prayer. Day by day. Day by day.

One has to question how long it lasted. The day by day. That slice of church life. The Book of Acts goes on to tell of Peter and John healing a man lame from birth. Peter preached some more. They were tossed in prison for proclaiming that in Jesus there is resurrection from the dead. The text records another five thousand join the community. Five thousand joined the day by day of the Body of Christ. You have to wonder how long it lasted. The chapters that tell the Acts of the Apostles do not take the form of an hourly or daily diary. So how long did that idyllic glimpse of the earliest church life last?

Probably until the couple named Ananias and Sapphira decided to break the community’s covenant and hold some money back after the sale of some property. That’s in chapter five. As the story goes, both were struck dead for breaking the covenant, rocking the boat, and keeping a bit of the cash. Seems a bit harsh for a lie and a bit of money even by biblical standards. Perhaps right here is where it all ends. The story of Ananias and Sapphira marks the end of the day-by-day, day-by-day honeymoon era of church life. As Luke writes after the two were struck dead, “Great fear seized the whole church and all who heard of these things.”

Studying, learning, and growing in the faith of Jesus Christ. Fellowship, generosity, sharing, caring for those in need, demonstrating the goodness of God. Breaking bread, praising God, and testifying to the signs and wonders of God. And prayer. Day by day. Day by day.

It seems an odd thing to say when it comes to the divine bluster of Pentecost, but there is an ordinariness to the biblical account of the day-by-day. Amid signs and wonders and numbers in the thousands come studying and growing and fellowship and generosity and sharing and breaking bread and praising God and prayer. Amid all the miraculous of those days, there was also an everydayness of it. The followers of Jesus demonstrating the goodness of God in the run-of-the-mill life together. So much about that Day of Pentecost is so unimaginable and unrelatable for you and for me. And yet, so much in that day, in the days ahead, in the day-to-day is so very imaginable, so very relatable. Studying, learning, and growing in the faith of Jesus Christ. Fellowship, generosity, sharing, caring for those in need, demonstrating the goodness of God. Breaking bread, and praising God, A recognizable slice of church life to this day. For by God’s grace, Ananias and Sapphira did not, in fact, bring an end to the day-by-day era of church life. Experiencing the extraordinary presence of God in the ordinariness of life together in the Body of Christ. I’ve seen it. You’ve seen it.

The witness of the New Testament makes clear the vulnerability, the tenuousness, and the fleeting reality of the day-to-day. Disagreements are real. Factions rise up. Conflicts fester. Life together in the community of faith is challenged by humans being humans. The peace and unity of the church is a delicate balance and has been from day one. But still, and yet, by the grace of God, there are these glimpses of the day-to-day, studying, learning, and growing in the faith of Jesus Christ. Fellowship, generosity, sharing, caring for those in need, demonstrating the goodness of God. Breaking bread, praising God, and testifying to the signs and wonders of God. And prayer. Day by day. Day by day. How long did it last? That glimpse of the ordinary. In the resurrection power of Jesus Christ among us, it’s still here.

Craving the ordinary in the body of Christ. What transcends the strange miraculousness of it all, what connects us is our life in Christ, our life as the Body of Christ. What binds us to the communion of saints, to the great cloud of witnesses, is the Risen Christ himself; Christ and his promise. Our unity is not by the merit of our belief, or by the purity of our discipline, or by an adherence to one moral code or another, our unity is in Christ and him alone. And according to the Reformed theological tradition, according to traditional Christianity, “wherever we see the Word of God purely preached and heard, and the sacraments administered according to Christ’s institution, there, it is not to be doubted, a church of God exists.” (John Calvin, 16th century) The body of Christ, formed, reformed, shaped, built, and sent into the world by Word and Sacrament, carries out the very mission of God, day by day.

Some dismiss the first account of life together in the body of Christ as so strange, so otherworldly, so irrelevant, and unimaginable. Some dismiss the life in the body of Christ today as so different from their own expectation or yearning and are content to walk away. Some mistakenly label life in a faith community as “organized religion” to make it much easier than to write off or pile on. But others, crave the ordinary of life together in the Body of Christ. Praying for the eyes and ears and hearts to behold the wonders and signs of the living God present and at work in our lives, in the lives of those around us, and yes, in the world.  Like the first-century followers of Jesus, they celebrate with awe the saving grace of Christ that still fills hearts and changes lives, and meets us afresh every morning. They yearn for a kingdom where the hungry are fed and those that have much, work to help those who have little and do it with generous, joy-filled hearts. Like the prophets of old they cry out for justice and righteousness and wholeness, not just in the community of faith, but in all the land. They foster a community of faith, maybe not of all like-minded and like-looking people, but a community that weeps with those who weep and rejoices with those who rejoice, a community that’s less concerned with who is in and who is out and more concerned with reflecting the goodness of God and the hospitality of Christ to all who come in and all who go out and to all who pass by, a community that will sing for you when you can’t sing, pray for you when you can’t pray, and believe for you when there is little to nothing left in you, a community who knows its collective worship life to be sacred, and its fellowship a gift of God, and the life of discipleship to be the absolute highest calling. A community that believes that our life in Christ is precious and we live it day by day to God’s glory.

Studying, learning, and growing in the faith of Jesus Christ. Fellowship, generosity, sharing, caring for those in need, demonstrating the goodness of God. Breaking bread, praising God, and testifying to the signs and wonders of God. And prayer. Day by day. Day by day. Still. Day by Day.

Come to the Table, that our craving for the ordinary in this life together might be nourished. Come to the Table, so that you and I, so that our life as the Body of Christ might be fed by Christ himself.


It Is a Fortitude

Deuteronomy 31: 7-13, 19-23 [i]
Lauren J. McFeaters
April 30, 2023
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What do we know about Moses and Joshua? Although the references are relatively brief and scattered, the books of Exodus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Joshua, and Judges give us the stories of Moses preparing Joshua to be his successor. Moses was taught by God. Now Moses is the teacher of Joshua and in that relationship, there are two primary responsibilities: that of Moses to teach and of Joshua to be teachable.

Throughout the Exodus and decades together in the desert, God has painstakingly trained Moses, that to be wise, you must make mistakes, and from those mistakes, you must fall down, and when you fall down, you must get up and try another day.

Moses has done the same for Joshua, and now Joshua must do the same for God’s people. It is God’s intention for us to recognize teachable moments:  to be the teacher, the student, or both.

I hope all of us have memorable teachers in our lives; the most memorable being the ones who lead us toward those “Ah-ha,” breakthrough moments of discovery; perhaps in the classroom, perhaps not.

For me, one of those teachers was a professor at Emerson College in Boston, Ken Crannell who taught me, as an eager and chatty student, that most human relationships are formed in the moments between words; that human communication is 5% vocal and 95% non-vocal. He taught me to listen more than speak; to attend to the subtext rather than the spoken word. It’s a lesson I needed. A lesson I still need.

And there is Leong Seow, who upon my being able to read the Joseph narrative in Hebrew and feeling like I had climbed Everest, I said, “I did it. Job done. Whereupon Professor Seow said, “Not job done. Now you are ready to begin and to listen to the space between God’s Alef, Bet, and Gimel.” Mind blown.

Who are these teachers for you?

Yo-Yo Ma says Isaac Stern made him the musician he is by teaching him that music had little to do with actually playing the cello. He says, Isaac Stern taught me that it’s not the notes that matter; it’s what’s in between the notes, and what it takes to get from one note to another. Music is not made by hitting a key, by bowing a string, or by blowing over a reed:  music is what’s made in between.

This is how God teaches and shapes us. It’s what’s between us: God and ourselves, ourselves and others. It’s what it takes to get from one note to another; one syllable to another, one heartbeat to another, by opening our eyes each day with a knowledge that it’s never going to be about the words we say, but about the actions we take between the words. It’s not what trips off the tongue or the strings; it’s living as those who in the silent beats of life, are never, ever forsaken, abandoned, orphaned.

Now, therefore, write this song,

and teach it and put it in their mouths,

in order that this song may be a witness for me.

Be strong and bold,

for I will be with you.

Do you think God’s song is about the notes? No.

Do you think God’s song is about the harmony? No.

Do you think God’s song is about a promise? Yes.


The Moses-Joshua relationship embodies this. Every Moses needs a Joshua. Every Joshua needs a Moses. Moses brought Joshua everywhere, exposed him to the deeper truths, taught him to listen between the notes; empowered his growth, supported him through difficulty; and most meaningful – introduced him to intimacy with God – the God “who goes before you; will be with you; will not fail you or forsake you. Be strong. Be bold. Be courageous.” It’s not a threat. It is a fortitude.


It is a fortitude. Fortitude: the strength that enables us to encounter danger or bear pain or adversity with courage. It’s spunk and pluck, guts and grit, tenacity and doggedness, and it’s my favorite Yiddish word – hutzpah. It’s what Karl Barth says is a kind of holy courage – Courage, he said, is fear that has said its prayers. God’s Word does not make cowards out of us.


In her novel, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Maya Angelou tells the story of her childhood and of her growing up in the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church in Arkansas.


Every few months or so, the Reverend Howard Thomas, Presiding Elder of the District, would come and stay at Maya’s home and oh how she detested, despised, the Reverend’s visits.


She says, I could not stand the man. He was unendingly condescending; ate the best parts of their chicken dinner; left little for anyone else, and his prayers before Sunday breakfast, droned on and on for so long that breakfast was ruined and the awaiting ham, eggs and biscuits were cold and nasty.


On one particular summer Sunday, however, the Reverend Thomas read from the Book of Deuteronomy. Maya Angelou says,

“I was stretched between loathing his voice

and wanting to listen.

Deuteronomy is my favorite book in the Bible.

The laws were so absolute, so clearly set down,

that I knew if a person truly wanted to live,

all she had to do was memorize Deuteronomy

and follow its teaching, word for word.”

“I also like the way the word rolls off the tongue,” [ii]

she says, “Deu-ter-on-o-my.


No one was going to ruin the book for me –

not even a preacher – the book, it turns out,

even in his droning and murmuring is a strength.

God’s Word is a fortitude.


And in God’s song of promises,

full of spunk and pluck, guts, and grit,

– full of hutzpah –

the notes do not simply trip off the tongue –

they make us bold, strong;

they make us Singers of God’s Song.


Thanks be to God.



[i]  Deuteronomy 31:7-13, 19-23: Then Moses summoned Joshua and said to him in the sight of all Israel: “Be strong and bold, for you are the one who will go with this people into the land that the LORD has sworn to their ancestors to give them; and you will put them in possession of it. It is the LORD who goes before you. He will be with you; he will not fail you or forsake you. Do not fear or be dismayed.” Then Moses wrote down this law, and gave it to the priests, the sons of Levi, who carried the ark of the covenant of the LORD, and to all the elders of Israel. Moses commanded them: “Every seventh year, in the scheduled year of remission, during the festival of booths, when all Israel comes to appear before the LORD your God at the place that he will choose, you shall read this law before all Israel in their hearing. Assemble the people—men, women, and children, as well as the aliens residing in your towns—so that they may hear and learn to fear the LORD your God and to observe diligently all the words of this law, and so that their children, who have not known it, may hear and learn to fear the LORD your God, as long as you live in the land that you are crossing over the Jordan to possess.”

Now, therefore, write this song and teach it to the Israelites; put it in their mouths, in order that this song may be a witness for me against the Israelites. For when I have brought them into the land flowing with milk and honey, which I promised on oath to their ancestors, and they have eaten their fill and grown fat, they will turn to other gods and serve them, despising me and breaking my covenant. And when many terrible troubles come upon them, this song will confront them as a witness, because it will not be lost from the mouths of their descendants. For I know what they are inclined to do even now, before I have brought them into the land that I promised them on oath.” That very day Moses wrote this song and taught it to the Israelites. Then the LORD commissioned Joshua son of Nun and said, “Be strong and bold, for you shall bring the Israelites into the land that I promised them; I will be with you.”


[ii]  Maya Angelou. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. New York:  Random House, 1969.



Surprise Endings

Luke 5:36-39
David A. Davis
April 23, 2023
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Talk about a surprise ending. When evening came, the owner of the vineyard told his manager to gather all the day laborers so they could get paid. “Begin with the last and then go to the first”, he said. It all would have fine if he paid them in the right order. If the all-day workers were paid first, they never would have known how much the owner gave to the end-of-the-day folks. But he intentionally messed up the line. When the people who were hired at 5:00 stepped up and were given a full day’s pay, everyone else saw it. The workers at the end of the line, the 10, 12-hour day folks at the end of the line, saw how much was being paid. At the end of the line, when it was their turn, of course they expected to be paid more. They figured something had changed that day. Maybe the market price spiked, or the minimum wage went up or the job was finished and it was a harvest time bonus. Whatever happened, the all-day long laborers still expected the owner to pay them what was right and just and fair which would, of course, be more than the last-minute workers who barely broke a sweat.

But no. When it was their turn, when those at the end of the line who just watched everyone else get paid finally stood before the manager, they received the same amount. A day’s wage, no more, no less. And in an understatement of biblical proportion, Jesus the parable teller, said they “grumbled against the landowner.” Grumbled. Grumbled? Really. Can you imagine? “We have been out here all day long busting our butts for you in the heat of the day and these johnny come lately, entitled, coddled, like to sleep in, don’t want to get their hands dirty, millennial workers show up when the sun is going down and you pay them the same thing you pay us?” Grumbling wouldn’t begin to describe it.

The owner of the vineyard turned to one of them, one of the grumblers and said, “You know this isn’t about you. It doesn’t always have to be about you. It isn’t just about you!” Well, in the parable what he said was, “Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?” Are you envious because I am generous? Envious of generosity. It was generosity that messed everything up.

Right at the end, with the parable now finished, Jesus said “So the last will be first and the first will be last.”  It’s what Jesus said right before the parable as well at a the end of chapter 19.  “many who are first will be last and the last will be first.” He frames the parable, right before, right after, “the last will be first, the first will be last.” That’s messed up. That’s how the line was messed up. First last, last first. It’s such a familiar phrase, “the first last, the last first”. It has that familiar, bible sound to it, as if Jesus said it all the time. Surprisingly, in Matthew’s gospel it is only here. First last, last first. Before and after the parable. Matthew’s Jesus only said it twice. Both right here.

“So the last will be first and the first will be last”. It’s much more than a description of the parable’s payroll line. It’s more than a verse to quote in your head when a new line opens at the grocery store and you push your cart from last to first. “The last will be first and the first will be last.” Here in Matthew it’s not even a takeaway about Jesus’s teaching on leadership and servanthood “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” That’s Mark. The first and the last in Matthew, it’s all wrapped around this parable with the messed up payroll line and the owner’s disruptive generosity.

“The Laborers in the Vineyard”. Whoever in the tradition gets to title, name, label parables should not be allowed to call it that. Because the parable isn’t really about the laborers in the vineyard. It’s about the owner and his generosity. Sort of the whole point of the parable is that it is NOT about them. It’s about his disruptive generosity. It’s “The Parable of Disruptive Generosity.” Jesus finishes the parable and turns to the disciples, to the church, to you and to me and says “So the last will be first and the first will be last.” It’s Jesus’ exclamation point on God’s disruptive generosity. A lasting reminder about how that outrageous, disruptive generosity messes things up. Messes things up when it comes to our inflated sense of self and humankind’s innate expectation about how the line is supposed to work. God’s generosity so completely baffles the world’s way of doing things, thinking things, understanding things. “The last shall be first and the first shall be last.” It’s Jesus shaking his head at the world, sticking his finger in the world’s chest, standing toe to toe with the world and saying, “You have no idea.”

The last time I preached a sermon on the parable of disruptive generosity, I told you the story of a good friend of mine here in Princeton who sold his company in 2019 to a private equity group. The complex deal involved multiple lawyers with negotiations right to the last minute that almost broke off several times. Sometime before the deal was done, the owner had a meeting with his senior leadership team. He told them that once the transaction took place, once all the funds related to the sale were received, he wanted to give a monetary gift to every employee. It was something like $1,500 or $2,000 for everyone from the CFO, to the head of HR, to the truck driver, the warehouse staff, the custodians. He knew it had to go through payroll and be taxed so he wanted to gross up the gift so employees would pocket the intended amount of the gift.

The executive team had trouble wrapping their head around his request. One kept using the word bonus. “It’s not a bonus. It’s gift” my friend responded. Another suggested it should be an amount proportional to salary or hourly wage. “No, it’s the same for everyone. It’s a gift.” “Some employees have been here a lot longer. We just hired someone last week.  “I know. The point is that is the same for everyone. No matter what”. The frustration of the senior staff kept rising and they wouldn’t let it drop. Finally, my friend said with some volume and authority announcing the end of the conversation, “Look, if you want me to read the Gospel of Matthew to you right now, I will. It is a gift for everyone. The same for everyone.” Months after the sale went through and the gifts were given, one employee who had been with the company several years with a relatively high salary filed a lawsuit about the gift because it wasn’t fair. Last fall, my friend and I were on the golf course together. It was three years after the company was sold. “Whatever happened to that person who filed the lawsuit over your gift?’ I asked. “You won’t believe it”, he said, “my lawyers told me to settle because it would cost too much in legal fees to keep going. The employee who still works for the company received tens of thousands of dollars.”  Because of course, in the world we live in the first will be…well, first.

There are several conversations that every parent has to have at some point with their child. I will not presume to offer a list of the conversations nor will I prioritize the list. You can use your own imagination, experience, or memory as well as I can. One of those inevitable conversations comes when you have to try to explain to a 4-year-old, a 14-year-old, a 24-year-old, a 40-year-old, and an 80-year-old, after you hear them shout out in sadness, frustration, exhaustion, or grief that “it is not fair”. At some point, somewhere, sometime, the parent, the friend, the partner, the boss, the pastor has to be honest and respond “You are so right. Life is not fair.”

When it comes to this morning’s parable from the 20th chapter of Matthew, if Nassau’s Lenten small group conversations are any indication, not many people like this parable. Folks have a problem with this parable. We don’t like this parable because the parable is messed up. God’s disruptive generosity shatters any illusion you and I have about the promise of fair. There is little to nothing in the gospel about fairness. When it comes to the experience, the understanding, the proclamation of the generosity of God? How quickly the world creeps in. The world where first is…first. Little defines the human condition more than the desire among the pious, the religious, the powerful, and the wealthy to horde the generosity of God. God can be generous to me just not to you. God can be generous but only to people who look like me. God can be generous to Christians but not to people of other faiths. God can forgive this sinner but not that sinner. Yes, like the day-long workers, many in the church grumble at God’s disruptive generosity. If we’re honest, you and I grumble sometimes too. God’s boundless love. God’s unending forgiveness. God’s embrace. God’s welcome. God’s grace. The boundary-shattering, death conquering, grace of God always reaches further than the people of God want it to. It’s disruptive. It’s not fair and it’s messed up. Grace-FULLY messed up. “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?”

I found myself inside a parable last Wednesday afternoon in a meeting room full of Presbyterian clergy and elders from all around the country. Two governing boards of national agencies of the church were together to learn about each other’s work and responsibility and to get know to each other bit. There were about 35 people sitting at tables of 3 and 4 and at one point we were invited to do one of those dreaded team-building exercises. The convener told us we were to build a structure made out of only newspaper and tape. She pointed to a stack of newspapers and rolls of tape there in the front of the room. We were challenged to build a newspaper bridge big enough for a gallon jug of water to pass under and strong enough to hold two hymnbooks on top. We were given 8 minutes to plan and 10 minutes to build. Once the building began we would not be allowed to talk to each other. Those were the only directions and rules given.

After the planning time, the leader invited us to begin the building process. At this point, one person from one of the groups bolted to the table in the front of the room and took every piece of newspaper and every roll of tape, and ran back to their table. As one group began to build hoarding all the resources, the rest of us were stunned, and frustrated, and a few were angry. To be fair, there was no rule expressed about not taking everything for your group. I actually thought maybe it was a setup and the convener was going to make a point about how many resources in the world are held by so few. But the convener was just as stunned as everyone else. She told me later she has led a newspaper bridge building game with youth groups and in a public high school and something like this had never happened before. One group taking everything. Yay, church leaders!

Group #1 never apologized but pointed to the lack of rules and admitted to being overly competitive. Their bridge did collapse under the weight of the hymnbooks. So that was good. We didn’t really debrief the experience. We didn’t have to. The takeaway was obvious to elders and clergy alike. The takeaway was like a heavy stone pulling the whole room down.

In the world we live in and in the church we serve, the first is still….well, first. And somewhere in the kingdom of God, Jesus is shaking his head and saying to himself and to anyone who still listens, “they really have no idea.”