Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Have you fallen on the Capstone or is it falling on you?

     For the second time in the last six chapters, Matthew has recorded a terrible judgment by His master on the religious elite.  In chapter 16, Matthew records that after denying the Pharisees and Sadducees their sought-after sign, Jesus left them and went away.  Seemingly, His offer of grace and repentance has run its course with those He knows to be hard-hearted to His call.  Similarly, after the parable of the Wicked Tenants, Jesus pronounces terrible judgment on the elite once again, even as He acknowledges what they are about to do.  Therefore I tell you that the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit.  Wow!  Jesus has just told the religious leaders that the honor, power, prestige, and hope that were, by right of birth, open to them, will be taken away and given to others.  The very people who had been charged with pastoring God’s people will not inherit it because they have not produced the fruit demanded by Yahweh.  Can there be a more tragic and fearful judgment?

     Make no mistake, the chief priests and the Pharisees knew that Jesus was talking about them.  Matthew makes that clear.  But so afraid of losing power, so afraid of the very people to whom they were charged with pastoring were the religious leaders of the day, they were unable to protect that which they valued, wrongly, more than anything in the world.

     I mention this “taking away” as a warning to us all.  As many of you know, I had a few extended conversations with the founder of Angel Food during last year’s holidays.  This passage was one of those that popped into my head as we were talking.  What had started out as a wonderful ministry, a ministry which sought to help stretch peoples’ grocery dollars, had morphed into something else.  This wonderful ministry had become an opportunity for entitlement and enrichment.  A ministry which was based upon looking the needy in the eye, getting to know them by name and face, and feeding them in Christ’s name, decided it needed a private jet to avoid the crowds.  A ministry which sought to stretch dollars as far as possible, found itself paying incredible amounts to its officers, who were, as many of us here know, often unreachable.  A ministry which had sought to speak God's grace into a world that had become so skeptical of religious leaders that many participants expected a rip off a some point, was, at its winding down, choosing to keep its officers enriched at the expense of those food stamp families who could least afford the ripoff.  And the fact that God was taking this away from those whom He had gifted was plain for all to see, except those blinded by what they had forgotten.

     Despite the worst economic climate since the Great Depression, the national numbers of the ministry continued to fall.  Nationally, they experienced what we experienced locally.  As we were falling from 250 families served a month down into the 80’s and 90’s each month, the national ministry fell from over 700k families served to under 200k each month.  Was the quality bad?  No.  Was the value terrible?  No.  Then why the decrease?  In the midst of the worst economy in many of our lives, the ministry dried up.  As the need was increasing, the ministry was decreasing.  Therefore I tell you that thekingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit. 

     Brothers and sisters, even today God is at work in the midst of us and the world.  Where people are doing His work, often against all odds and expectation, He often blesses, but the converse is true.  If we, as His chosen people, forsake our inheritance, He will take it away and give it to others who will produce fruit.  And just as His blessing will glorify Him, so will His removal of those same blessings also serve Him.

     What do I mean by that?  Think of what has happened.  Despite the economy and despite the need, the ministry collapsed.  Look at the benefits of those low numbers.  How many of us had people tell us that it was now ok for us to steal their money?  They came into the ministry expecting us to steal from them eventually.  Once the amount of food they received was greater than what they ordered, they even bothered to tell us that it was ok if we stole their money because they were ahead.  Because we saw the warning signs, not a one was ripped off.  No one lost any money.  Could that have happened at its height?  

     Or consider the financial allegations.  The ministry was founded to serve and we were committed to serving those most in need, those who have to choose between food and other essentials.  Time and time again, the cost of the food increased because of "transportation" costs.  Diesel is up, so is the cost of food.  To be sure, most of the units were good values, but was the increase necessary?  During the period when we served as a host site, the four officers' salaries went from around a combined $200,000 to somewhere in the neighborhood of an estimated $2.2 million combined last year.  And did I mention the $1.1 million loan the family took out against the ministry?  How about the allegation that the family may have been using a nonprofit business to funnel revenues and income to an insider controlled for profit business?  In some ways, outsiders might rightfully argue that those leading this ministry enriched themselves on the backs of those who could least afford the cost.  Yet, thanks to the decline in the ministry, how few are the number of people who have heard of the seeming failures compared to how many it could have been!

     Now, while it may sound negative to our ears, this taking away, listen to the rest of His judgment.  He will give it to those who will produce fruit.  What was taken away from the Jewish religious establishment some two thousand years ago was given to fishermen, tax collectors, prostitutes and Gentiles like you and me.  Why?  Because of our fruit, the fruit of repentance.

     When wrapping up His teaching against the priests and Pharisees, Jesus reminds us that there are only two responses to the Gospel.  Either we fall on it and are broken, or it falls on us and crushes us. And it is precisely when we are totally broken that He goes to amazing work in and through us!  Just when we seem most unworthy, when we realize our utter incapacity to save ourselves, He reaches in, circumcises out heart, and sends us out into the fields to plant, to nourish, and bear fruit of that understanding.  Thankfully and mercifully, He gives us a choice.  Will we serve Him and all those whom we meet in His Name, or will we serve ourselves and find ourselves, at the end, crushed by His judgment?  Better still, when we choose unwisely, and find that stone falling upon us, all He demands is that we repent.  He has already paid the price for our failure on Calvary.  It is not as if the religious leaders had no hope.  At some point during what you and I call Holy Week, some of these leaders had to wonder.  He knew what they were doing in secret and talked about it openly.  He faced their plotting and scheming like a lamb led to the slaughter. And then, when the “problem” His teaching and authority seemed to have been buried in the tomb with His death, the Lord did something marvelous!  He raised Him to new life and offered that life and His Spirit to all who would be broken by Christ’s work and ministry to us!

     Brothers and sisters, to what ministry is He calling you?  Late at night when you cannot sleep or during the days when you would rather be doing something far more significant than whatever it is you are doing, to what ministry is He calling you?  What ministry has He prepared for you, that His name might be glorified?  To whom is He sending you?  Will you answer that call and allow yourself to be used to grow His kingdom?  Or will you fight it, and risk the judgment of the priests and Pharisees?  He has given us each the opportunity to choose?  How do you answer Him?


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