Is It True? John 8:31-36

I’m not even sure where I was introduced to it, within Quaker circles there is a practice known as “the threefold sieve.”  Do you know what that is? Have you heard of that?  Basically it has to do with what you do with information you have received, particularly information about someone else. Before you dump this into the “Rumor Mill,” have you passed this piece of information through the “threefold sieve?”   The “sieve” revolves around three questions.   Before any words pass through the gateway of your lips, ask these three questions:

“Is this true?”

“Is this kind?”

“Is this necessary?”

The first question, “Is this true?” is the one that I connected with the Gospel lesson today because Jesus makes an implicit statement.   “You will know the truth and the truth will make you free…”

Now truth can be a little bit slippery.   It is hard to fact check everything that comes your way.    But ascertaining the truthfulness about something is important, and for Jesus the test of the truth about him resides in the matter of “continuing in his Word.”

Believing in Jesus is one thing.  Continuing in his word is quite another.  That act of “continuing” pushes the matter of following and putting one’s actions in alignment with what Jesus calls us to do and to be.

It’s relatively easy to believe in Jesus.

Shoot, I can believe in Santa Claus on Christmas Day when the packages appear under the tree as if by magic.

I can believe in the Tooth Fairy when I find the dime under my pillow, (yes, I really am that old that the going rate was a dime!)

I can believe in the Easter Bunny when the basket of chocolate and peeps is set outside my door.

I can even “believe” in the Royals… so long as they keep winning.   Okay, some will continue to believe even if they lose but there is that element of “jumping on the bandwagon” of the moment isn’t there?  There are Royals fans now during the Series who will probably care less 6 months from now as we start to wonder who will be in the Series in 2015.

The question begged is:  “Will you continue beyond that momentary belief you may experience into a life re-ordering existence?  Will your believing result in following?”   Does believing in something today change what you will do not just today, but tomorrow, and the next day and for the rest of your life?

This is where believing in Jesus becomes quite a different matter than believing in other things.   There is no expectation to “believe in Santa Clause” beyond Christmas or the Royals beyond this current season and series.

But Jesus implicitly promises that if you “continue in his Word” you will know the truth, and that truth will set you free.

It’s significant for us to question whether we understand that, because that is the heart of the Gospel lesson for today.

Jesus is talking to his own people here, “The Jews” as identified in John’s Gospel.  These are people who don’t question God, or the existence of the Law, or community, or the importance of the Temple, they simply aren’t too sure about Jesus.  Is he another “flash in the pan” prophet from the sticks out of Nazareth, or is he the real deal, who he claims to be, the one sent from God?

So the first question I have for you today to pass through the sieve is this.  “Is it true?”   You’ve heard the stories about Jesus.  You’ve heard the teachings, the parables, the challenges.  Is it true?  Is this the Son of God or not?

Careful how you answer that, because if that passes through that sieve of being true then the next question you’re going to have to struggle with is the one about “continuing in his Word.”   Just fair warning, I’m going to come back to that in a minute.

The second question in the sieve is “Is it Kind?”     What you’ve heard about someone, about something, is that something that would be helpful or kind to be repeated or disclosed?

Kindness, of course, comes in a variety of forms.  It is not always the measure of what would just be “kind” to a particular individual.

The Sieve of “kindness” is a little tricky.   Sometimes we confuse our thinking about this sieve.  “If you can’t something nice, don’t say anything at all.”   You’ve heard that, maybe practiced it, but there are times when being “nice” doesn’t end up being really “kind” in the end.

“Is it kind” has to do in the end with telling the truth in such a way that both our neighbor and our community’s best interest is involved.   I may find myself having to say some things, disclose some things that are unpleasant out of “kindness” to either another individual or to my community.

The final Sieve is “Is this Necessary?” and I’ve already started to tip my hand here because you can’t answer the matter of kindness without it already starting to spill over into the matter of necessary.

All of this has a little bit to do with the events of 1517 and the Reformation.   In nailing of the 95 Theses to the chapel door in Wittenburg, Luther no doubt deemed that while he did not have necessarily “kind” things to say about the matter of indulgences and abuses of forgiveness in the church, he did have some necessary things to say.

But quite apart from this being Reformation Day, it is also Confirmation day many places, and so we will get a reminder of what happens to us all as we affirm our baptism today.   It’s a pretty big deal, actually.   It’s the difference between believing in Jesus for a day, or for a time, or because your parents think it is important to grappling with that for yourself.

It is true that Jesus is the Son of God, and that he has a claim on your life?  A claim initiated by Water and the Word so many years ago?  Is it true that you owe your very life and eternal salvation to this Jesus who was crucified?

Is what Jesus shows you how to do, in loving your neighbor, caring for the poor, healing the broken going to become the pattern for your life?    It was a big enough deal for Jesus that he was willing to die for it, even death on a cross.   Will that way of life, will “Continuing in the the Word of God” be that big a deal for you as well?   Does it inform and change what I choose to do for the rest of the day, and every day that follows.  Does it re-order my life?

See, I think (and Jesus thinks so too) that it’s really pretty easy to say you believe in something.  I believe that I should get more exercise, but will I get up every morning and hit my treadmill?

I believe that we should all give more to the work of the Kingdom through the church, but will I pull out my checkbook and make it happen?

I believe that daily bible reading would help me grow in my faith life, but do I carve out the time for that or does my bible continue to gather dust?

It’s easy to believe.  It’s really hard to continue, but here is the thing.  You won’t be able to believe if you don’t continue.

That is the paradox of the Christian faith.  I can’t prove that Jesus is who he claims to be empirically, But if I find that if I continue in his Word, the truth of the power of Jesus becomes clearer, and it does set me free.

The more I follow, the more I trust.

The more I give, the easier I find it is to give, and the more joyful my giving becomes.

The more I follow and trust the more clear it becomes to me what is indeed “kind” in this situation or that.

The more I follow and trust, continue in Jesus’ Word, the more clear it becomes to me just what truly is “necessary” for the sake of the other or for the sake the community.  What I am compelled to do because I follow the crucified and Risen one.

The more I follow and trust, the more “free” I become.  I discover that I am not bound by my own limitations.  I am not bound by own wondering how someone will take this, or what someone will say to that, or what someone else will do to me.

The only consideration becomes what will Jesus think of this?  Am I acting in accordance with his Word, with his intention, with his Kingdom’s goal in mind?

So, I told you I would come back to this.   “Is it true?”  Is Jesus the Son of God, and does following him make a difference in this world?    Be careful how you answer that, for it will require a re-ordering of your life when you ascent to it.  But, it will also set you free.

At The King’s Insistence Matthew 22:1-14

As Matthew’s Gospel winds its’ way toward the events of Jerusalem, Jesus tells a series of parables that all have to do with judgment, and we have been wandering through them for the last few weeks.  They seem to get harsher, and quite frankly more confusing as they are told.  Today’s parable of the King and the Wedding Banquet for his Son is a hot mess!  This invitation comes to a banquet, and there is a double edged reality.

Some who are invited decide to refuse the invitation.   Unlike other banquet parables where excuses are given, here it is flat our refusal. They end up angering the King, and are punished horrifically for their unwillingness to come at the invitation. Troops are sent in, cities are burned and punishment meted out.  In this part of the parable it’s really hard to picture God as being the King.  Vindictive, unforgiving, torching the city just because they refused an invitation to join a party?

Then, others are invited from the streets and byways. They respond to the gracious invitation and enjoy the bounty of the table.   But walking through, the King catches someone improperly attired, and is incensed. This poor fellow is taken from the bounty of the table and booted to the outer darkness.  That doesn’t quite seem fair.  After all, the instruction was to go out on the streets and invite people in.  You invite street people, and you get street people and what they can afford to wear.

I am left fishing for where the “good news”, the Gospel is in this parable.  Well, there is good news here, but to get to it you often have to do a little background work.

Matthew, you see, is trying to do a balancing act.

In his fellowship, his community, he has Jewish believers who have left the Synagogue and joined this new fellowship called “The Way.”  These are believers who are trying to maintain some connection to family and friends, all the people who used to be “at the table” if you will.  They have been invited to the banquet, how do we keep seats open for them?

Matthew also has to deal with hostility.  Not everyone is signing up to follow Jesus!   Not all who hear about Jesus are following him, and so Matthew and his community must wrestle with the questions that presents.  What about those who do not follow?    Are they consigned to the outer darkness?   Is there no hope for them?

Are we, who have heard and followed, somehow better off than all those who rejected Jesus?  Some want to simply “write off” those who refuse to follow Jesus.   In their smugness they behave as if now that they are “in” and the old rules of keeping commandments and caring for the neighbor simply don’t apply to those who have refused the invitation from Jesus.

Matthew, it appears, is struggling to help his people come to terms with how to walk a “middle way,” how to balance what is a natural tendency in human community.

And so, we have these parables about the Kingdom, what that Kingdom is like, and what it will mean for people.  We search for where we think we might be in the parable as it unfolds.

This parable is particularly hard to figure out if you think of it as purely a parable of trying to figure out the King and treat the King as if he were God.   The King here is not consistent at all!

If I say that God wants everyone into his Kingdom, I am confronted by the wedding robe piece, and the “many are called but few are chosen” comment.

If I say that God does appear to have some expectations about who shows up, I am confronted with the liberal directions that are given to the servants.  Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.”Go and invite!

If I place myself in the position of the slave, I have to ask myself, “Why would I want to invite folks if the King/Master is going to come through later on and start throwing folks out?”

I cannot figure this parable out to my satisfaction. Every time I think I have it nailed down, I’m back to balancing and it looks more precarious all the time.

No, the best I can come up with here, is this…..the banquet will be held….regardless, at the King’s insistence.

Why is that a piece of good news?

Well, think about it.  What would you or I be inclined to do if the plans for the party weren’t coming together?    If we were frustrated by guests, or times, or the lack of enthusiasm, we’d be tempted to postpone or to cancel altogether, wouldn’t we?  Forget it!  No banquet, you losers take care of yourselves!

But God, it appears, is persistent in God’s intention that the Banquet of the Kingdom be held.   God is persistent in the promise that there will be a completion of things, a day when things get summed up and the long awaited party is finally held.     God, it appears, is up to his elbows in working with this creation and simply will not walk away from it.  God is interested in gathering all kinds of folks into this Kingdom, and the invitation overrides everything else, so who shows up is going to look eclectic.

That is the promise, that the Banquet of the Kingdom will be held.. regardless!   That promise becomes even more important in uncertain times.  Times like Matthew’s community knew, and times that the people of Israel had known before.  The Hebrew scripture reading paired with Matthew 22 reminds us of that.  Back when Isaiah had to prophesy about impending doom from the Assyrian empire, we read these words, a promise that uncertain times do not last forever, but that God has other things in mind.

Isaiah 25 records;   On this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear.  And he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; he will swallow up death forever.

These past weeks, we have watched huge storms engulf far off places.   We’ve been shocked at renewed terror threats and terrible violence at the hands of political fanatics. We’ve seen Ebola spreading, claiming nearly 50% of those who contract it and the world scrambling to figure out how to address it.   We’ve seen more gun violence on our streets.  Some point to these things and claim the world is coming to an end, or God is visiting judgment, or at very least people are “getting what they deserve.”

I’m not so sure about that.

I’m not sure we need much more in the way of descriptions of the end of things.   I’ve had quite enough judgment for a while, thank you!   Quite enough of the casting out and gnashing of teeth and people trying to figure out where to lay blame for things.

What we need is the reminder that God is with us in this.

What we need is a reminder that there is be a party planned, that will not be denied or cancelled.  It will come regardless of the foolishness of the guests, or the tentativeness of the inviting servants, or the whether some whom we think may be scoundrels end up getting in or not.

God will know how to sort that out in the end, I’m not wise enough to know.

The events of this world are just too muddy for me to make pronouncements about others, about their actions, their motives and their intentions.  On this Matthew agrees and is in fact curiously helpful today.    What we have right now is a muddy mess, and the marching orders given by the King.   Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.”

We are to do so, because in the end the only real word of hope in uncertain times is that God is determined to see us through them, and to see Gods work in creation brought to its intended completion. What we have is a promise that the banquet will come at God’s insistence.

So we do our inviting with confidence because of this promise, — that this persistent God of ours will continue to work with us, and will make sure the banquet happens regardless of anything else.   This is what we’ve got.  “Come meet this God, who will not walk away from what he began, and will see it through… regardless.”  Come, at the King’s insistence that you are welcome.