the workers in the vineyard

Jesus told his disciples this parable:

The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning, around 6 o’clock, to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage of one denarius, he sent them into his vineyard.

When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; and he said to them, “You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.” So, they went.

When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same.

And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, “Why are you standing here idle all day?” They said to him, “Because no one has hired us.” He said to them, “You also go into the vineyard.”

Around 6 o’clock, when evening came, the lord of the vineyard said to his foreman, “Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.”

When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage of one denarius. Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more for their twelve hours of labor; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, saying, “These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.”

But he replied to the ringleader, “Friend, I am not cheating you. Did you not make an agreement with me for one denarius? Take your denarius and go! I wish to give to this last one the same as I give to you. Is it not permissible to do what I wish with the things that are mine? Or are you envious because I am generous?”

So, the last will be first, and the first will be last.

(Matthew 20: 1-16)

historical context

Knowing the historical context in which this parable was told can lead to some unusual and even disturbing conclusions about its meaning. In first-century Palestine, work was scarce and poverty widespread. Day laborers were peasants who had lost their land through indebtedness. If they were no longer needed as tenant farmers for the new landowners, they would become part of the “expendable” class. They were on a downward spiral and were desperate for work to survive. They did not have many options. They could choose between day labor or robbery. If they were too weak for either of these, they would become beggars at the gate (like Lazarus) until they died of hunger and disease. When Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679), reflecting on the fate of peasants in a time of war, said that the life of humanity was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short,” it could aptly apply to the expendable class in the time of Jesus.

Jesus brings together the social extremes of an agrarian society: the elites and the expendables. And he arranges this meeting at a time when the elites were dependent on the lowliest of laborers. To ensure a timely harvest, the landowner needed their labor.

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a parable for the future of the church

In 2014, I read an article about a 119-year-old Lutheran church sanctuary in St. Louis that suddenly collapsed. It was a beautiful old Gothic structure that had once been glorious, but had been deteriorating for decades. The story seemed to me to be a parable about how the church is changing in today’s world. Perhaps even a parable about death and resurrection.

Bethlehem Evangelical Lutheran Church was founded in 1849 by twelve German immigrants. In 1887, the congregation moved to its current location in the Hyde Park area of North St. Louis. The congregation completed a brick sanctuary in 1893, but within three months, it was destroyed by fire. The current building was completed two years later and featured red brick with stone trim in the English Gothic style with stained glass windows, buttressed walls, and steep slate roofs. It originally had two bell tower spires, but both were destroyed in a 1927 tornado. A school building was constructed next door.

Bethlehem Lutheran Church was built with a sanctuary that could hold 1,100 people. In 1895, it was the largest Lutheran church in St. Louis. In 2014, the congregation had only 150 members.

In 1989, lightning damaged the building, and the $85,000 in repairs were beyond the church’s financial means. The congregation relocated to the school building next door in 1995 because the church’s overall deterioration had pushed the repair bill to $3 million. The church opted for the more affordable task of remodeling what had been the school building’s bowling alley as the sanctuary.

On Friday evening, April 11, 2014, much of one wall and part of the roof fell in. The school building which now houses the sanctuary and offices of the church, as well as Better Learning Communities Academy, a charter school, were undamaged. The historical structure which once was crowded with people in fellowship, worship and music is now in ruins.

Metaphorically, this is true for many older congregations in the United States. Where ministry once thrived, the challenge is now to simply keep the doors open.

A recent study found that in 2000, the median worship attendance at US congregations was 137; now it’s down to 65. As church attendance shrinks, small congregations make up a growing portion of the US religious landscape. In 2000, 45 percent of churches had fewer than 100 in weekly attendance. That has climbed to 65 percent. And aging sanctuaries which were built for larger crowds are becoming an increasing burden to maintain.

But though Bethlehem’s church members mourn the loss of the old building, they are encouraged by Bethlehem Lutheran’s housing efforts in its Hyde Park neighborhood, their pastor said. In less than nine years, the church’s Better Living Communities, a nonprofit housing corporation, had built or remodeled 248 houses. The charter school which shares its building is still going strong. The church also boasts a boy’s basketball team, the Bethlehem Bulldogs. They refuse to give up and are seeking new ways forward through creative ministries to the neighborhood.

In a symbolic way, the church has moved out of the sanctuary with its beautiful stained glass windows and into the streets where the ministry to “the least of these” occurs. The gospel preached by Bethlehem Lutheran Church is made manifest in better housing and education for its neighbors. As the old structures of the church collapse, new ways of being the church in the world are arising.

O God of Peace and Love

O God of peace, be with us now.
Stand here beside us; bring hope this day.
Transform this world of greed and strife,
From domination to your new way.
Teach us to make an end to war,
An end to bloodshed, an end to hate.
May hearts and hands in your new reign
End earth’s oppression and liberate.

Empower us so we can build
A world of justice where all can share.
Providing food to all in need
With your compassion and loving care.
The poor, the lame, the sick, the blind,
Are brothers, sisters, the whole world round.
You now invite them far and near
To your great banquet of love unbound.

You send us forth to find the lost,
Abandoned, lonely, and homeless ones.
You welcome all in your embrace
Forgiving freely as daughters, sons.
You set before our hungry eyes
A feast of plenty with wine and song.
We gather round as family,
A loving circle, where all belong.

You bless all those who work for peace
And cry for justice across the land.
You give us strength to speak your word.
Against all powers, you help us stand.
You teach us how to turn the cheek,
Resisting evil, with peaceful force.
You teach us love for enemies.
Gracious, forgiving, you are love’s source.

O God of love, be with us now.
Stir up your power, transform the earth.
Renew our minds, refresh our hearts,
Send peace and justice, give hope new birth.
Establish your reign here and now,
And help us live a more loving way,
That peace may flourish in our world
And streams of justice cascade today.

 

Music: “Wexford Carol” (Carul Loch Garman) — Traditional
© 2002

the Way of Jesus: a litany

L:           Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God.

P1:        Saying, the time is fulfilled.
P2:       The kingdom of God has come near.
P1:       Seek first the kingdom of God.
P2:       We pray: Your kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.

L:           The kingdom may surely come in the future, but it is also in the present.

P1:       The kingdom of God is all around you.
P2:       The kingdom of God is right there in your presence.

L:          The kingdom of God is a vision of a community committed to a distinctive way of life.

P1:       The first followers of Jesus became known as the “followers of the Way.”
P2:       As they listened to his teachings, they put them into practice.

L:           Following Jesus means practicing radical love.

P1:       Love God with all your heart, mind, and strength.
P2:       Love your neighbor as yourself.
P1:       Treat others as you would have them treat you.
P2:       Love your enemies and do good to those who hate you.

L:           Following Jesus means practicing lavish generosity.

P1:       Give to everyone who begs from you.
P2:       Do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.
P1:       Lend, expecting nothing in return.
P2:       Sell your possessions, and give money to the poor.

L:           Following Jesus means practicing extravagant forgiveness.

P1:       Forgive and you will be forgiven.
P2:       Pray for those who mistreat you.
P1:       Bless those who curse you.
P2:       Forgive seventy times seven times.

L:           Following Jesus means practicing inclusive hospitality.

P1:       He welcomed the rejected and outcasts.
P2:       He touched and healed the unclean and diseased.
P1:       He shared meals with the despised and marginalized.
P2:       He blessed the destitute, the hungry, and the weeping.

L:           Following Jesus means practicing compassionate action.

P1:       Jesus was moved with compassion to heal the sick.
P2:       Jesus was moved with compassion to feed the hungry crowds.
P1:       The Samaritan was moved by compassion for the man by the side of road.
P2:       The father was moved by compassion for his prodigal son.

L:           Following Jesus means practicing selfless service.

P1:       Feed the hungry and give drink to the thirsty.
P1:       Clothe the naked and care for the sick.
P1:       Visit the imprisoned.
P2:       Welcome the stranger and immigrant.

L:           Following Jesus means practicing a passion for justice.

P1:       Bring good news to the poor and oppressed.
P2:       Strive first for God’s justice.
P1:       Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice.
P2:       Blessed are those who are persecuted for the sake of justice.

L:           Following Jesus means practicing creative nonviolence.

P1:       If anyone hits you on your right cheek, offer him your left cheek too.
P2:       If anyone forces you to go one mile, then go two miles.
P1:       If anyone takes your coat, give him the shirt off your back too.
P2:       If anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again.

L:           Following Jesus means practicing simple living.

P1:       One’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.
P2:       Do not worry about what you will eat.
P1:       Do not worry about what you will drink.
P2:       Do not worry about what you will wear.

L:           Jesus taught a way of costly commitment which led to the cross.

P1:       Empower us to respond to the call of Jesus.
P2:       To give up self-centered ambition.
P1:       To take up our crosses.
P2:       And to follow Jesus.

 

Joined with Love: a wedding hymn

In community we gather,
Off’ring blessings on this day.
Friends and fam’ly joined together,
Raising voices now to pray.
May your journey from this moment
Be in God’s embracing care –
Like a mother, like a father,
Giving freely, always there.

May your days be filled with wonder,
May your nights be safe from fear.
May you learn to love each other
Ever more from year to year.
May you give to one another
Gifts of gentleness and grace;
Partners in a life together,
Hand in hand through time and space.

May your light shine in the darkness,
May your words be strong and bold.
May your love and your compassion,
Be a sign to young and old.
May your hearts accept all others,
Strangers, friends, and enemies.
May your lives reflect God’s kingdom,
Breaking down all boundaries.

May you build on strong foundations
A creation of your own,
Structured to withstand the ages,
Stronger still than brick or stone.
Joined with love, and care, and patience,
Built with tenderness and tears,
Crafted with a joyful spirit,
That endures throughout the years.

 

Music: “Hymn of Joy” by Ludwig van Beethoven
© 1999 Kurt Struckmeyer

(For the wedding of Amy Struckmeyer and Jim Skalla)

For Life and Love: a wedding hymn

Like potter’s clay on spinning wheel,
Grasped by strong hands that push and pull,
Our lives take shape in height and breadth,
In form and grace most wonderful.

Our vision shaped by hands of love,
What we have known is what we see.
We look at life as through a lens.
The eyes of love see differently.

As hatred blooms around the world,
As evil reigns and has its way,
The eyes of love are filled with hope.
Hate cannot last, love comes to stay.

So come now friends and family
In celebration, share in song.
That these two lives conceived in love
Will now be joined, their whole life long.

And may our prayers be offered here
That each may grow as husband, wife;
That love may bloom and bring new joy,
Transcending death, transforming life.

We raise our thanks and praise to God
With flute and pipe, with strings and voice;
We lift our hearts in gratitude
For life and love. Let all rejoice!

 

Music: “The Water Is Wide” – Traditional
© 2002 Kurt Struckmeyer

(For the wedding of Sara Struckmeyer and Chris Masson)

the common good

Early in the book of Acts, we are given a glimpse of the Jesus movement in the city of Jerusalem in the weeks and months after his execution. Their life together reflected the contours of the ministry Jesus proclaimed among the peasants of Galilee: love one another, care for one another, support one another, and share generously with one another.

Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at one house after another and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.[1]

Later, we read this similar account:

Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the possessions belonging to him was his own, but everything they owned was held in common. With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.[2]

It appears from these texts that community members were not required to sell everything and become homeless. They met and ate in one another’s homes, indicating that they still maintained private home ownership and their furnishings, but sold other land and income property beyond what was needed for their own shelter. The message of Jesus was that the accumulation of personal wealth for one’s future was a spiritual problem. It can lead to self-concern and selfishness. Sufficiency for the day was the goal. Everything beyond that was dedicated to a common purse to help clothe, feed, and house the less fortunate in the community and those who fell on hard times.

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the judgment of Jesus

Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.

—Jesus, according to Matthew

 

I have recently received feedback from people who feel I am judging and shaming those who hold political views that harm marginalized people in our society. Many people believe that Jesus taught only spiritual truths and did not care about the politics and economics of his day, even though they had a great impact on the poor peasants and fishermen who followed him. A close reading of the gospels tells a different story. Jesus was very concerned about oppressive political regimes and an economy of commercialized agriculture that was impoverishing the peasants of Palestine at an alarming rate, and he offered a contrasting vision of society—the kingdom of God.

moral choices

Throughout our lives we are faced with moral choices, both personally and politically. According to Matthew’s gospel, Jesus will someday judge between those individuals who choose to practice compassionate action (the righteous) versus those whose indifferent inattention does nothing to help the conditions of poor and marginalized people. His judgement was not meant solely for interpersonal interactions, but also for the corporate actions of social groups—the “nations.” Surely no follower of Jesus believes that their personal charity and service can be separated from their social and political actions. You cannot serve two masters.

The word righteous in this text may need some clarification because the common understanding of righteousness is 1) being morally right, or 2) being right with God. But a more holistic biblical understanding of righteousness is standing up for what is right—doing what is right and just. Righteousness means seeking justice in human society. A righteous person is one who seeks economic and social justice for poor and marginalized people.

The terms righteousness and justice are often linked in biblical texts. That is because they are synonymous, redundant terms. In the original languages of the Bible, the word for justice also means righteousness. The Greek word dikaios (DIK-ah-yos) in the New Testament and the word tzedakah (tze-dah-KAH) in the Hebrew Bible have this dual meaning. Righteousness implies a personal and individual dimension, while justice implies a social dimension, but they both have the same objectives—acting on behalf of those suffering from hunger, poverty, sickness, injustice, discrimination, and imprisonment.

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the complicity of moderates in Nazi Germany

This blog post is a follow-up to a previous post, “the complicity of moderates.” It apparently offended a small number of self-disclosed moderates on Facebook who felt that my intention was to shame them. That was not my intention. Some claimed that they actually took stands as needed, but then their stand would have been necessarily toward one extreme or another, to the right or to the left, because there is no clearly defined middle way to respond to evil.

As a response, I will use an example from my first book.[1] It has to do with the Protestant Church in Nazi Germany, a nation of about 60 million people. In the early 1930s, two-thirds of the population was Protestant (about 40 million members) and the remaining third was Roman Catholic (about 20 million). Less than 1 percent (600,000) were Jewish.

Because the modern state of Germany was created from of a number of small independent principalities and kingdoms in the late nineteenth century, the Lutheran and Reformed (Calvinist) Protestant churches of Germany remained separated as 28 independent regional bodies reflecting their origins as small state-sponsored churches (Landeskirchen) with the local ruler as head. In 1922, they formed a loose federation to participate jointly in mission activities, but they did not come together as one unified church until April 1933 when the German Evangelical Church (Deutsche Evangelische Kirche) was created under the direction of Adolf Hitler.

Only months earlier, in January 1933, German President Paul von Hindenburg (1847–1934) had appointed Adolf Hitler (1889–1945) as Chancellor of Germany. When Hindenburg died the following year, Hitler combined the offices of chancellor and president and became the nation’s dictator. Many Christians in Germany openly welcomed Hitler’s National Socialist (Nazi) party to power as a historic moment of Christ’s work on earth for and through the Aryan Volk (German for people).

As it rose to power in the 1930s, the Nazi message was that in spite of their God-given destiny, the nation was threatened from within by the insidious presence of Communists, Jews, and liberals in their midst. Hitler told the nation that their duty was to purify themselves of these influences to prepare for their divine vocation as God’s anointed nation. His message was that he would make Germany great again.

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the complicity of moderates

I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to “order” than to justice.

—Martin Luther King, Jr., “Letter from Birmingham Jail” (1963)

 

I wish you were either hot or cold; if I had my way you’d be one way or the other, all the way, but you lukewarm types, you passionless types, you make me want to vomit.[1]

—John of Patmos, speaking for God (late first century)

 

The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.

—Edmund Burke (1770)

The well-known quote attributed to statesman and philosopher Edmund Burke (1729–1797) perfectly describes the role played by moderates and political independents in any society—good people who do nothing to stop the triumph of evil.

The persistence of evil in a nation is more due to the inaction and inattention of political and religious moderates than it is to the actions of dedicated white supremacists and authoritarian politicians. Throughout history, those who consider themselves moderates, centrists, and independents have, by their silence, been complicit with the rule of autocrats and evil regimes. Whether they realize it or not, they are often collaborators with tyrants and despots. They have historically allowed racism, misogyny, antisemitism, ethnic cleansing, war, poverty, and oppression to flourish by their self-centered lack of attention and action.

In his famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr (1929–1968) wrote:

We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people. Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be coworkers with God.

Today, political moderates and centrists like to portray themselves as common-sense people who keep an open mind on issues, are willing to listen to different viewpoints, think for themselves, and are not extreme in their beliefs. These are the so-called independent voters who do not strongly affiliate with either major party or their ideologies. They often feel themselves to be above the partisanship that afflicts the rest of us.

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