Monday, September 22, 2008

A: Proper 20 (21 September 2008)

      Matthew 20:1-16

 The reading from St Matthew’s gospel that we just heard is an example of a very familiar category of biblical literature—the parable.  When I was a teacher in a parochial school many years ago, I taught my young students that a parable is “an earthly story with a heavenly meaning.” That may not be an academically precise definition, but, for general purposes, it’s not bad. Parables challenge and puzzle and stretch our imaginations. And this is certainly true of the parable we find in front of us today. It challenges our assumptions about God and the ways of God. It puzzles us, because it turns out so unlike anything that we would have expected. It stretches our minds to the point that we realize that the economy of the Kingdom of Heaven operates under a very different set of rules than those that apply to human economies—something for which I suppose we should be rather grateful, given the state of our human economy there days!

This is not an easy lesson to learn, because all of our conditioning programs us to assume the opposite.  We live in an environment of time cards, union contracts, minimum wages, salary ranges, workplace regulations, human resource departments, and employment discrimination laws. That’s our experience, and we are programmed to look at all workplace relationships in the light of that experience. We are conditioned to assume that God plays by the rules, that the Kingdom of God operates pretty much the same way as a well-run publicly-held corporation whose stock is traded on the New York Stock Exchange. There are certain rules, and we know them, and if we follow them we expect certain rewards, and if we don’t follow them, we expect certain consequences.

It’s that “consequences” part that can become a problem, because many people reach a point in their lives when they look at all they’ve done—harmful things, foolish things, or maybe even really wicked things—and all they have failed to do—saying prayers and going to church usually top the list, but taking good care of loved ones, maintaining relationships, taking care of mental and physical health also show up—people reach a point when they survey this mountain of evidence, and assume that it’s too late to make amends with God.  Much like a terminal lung cancer patient who loves to smoke and does it all the time now that the diagnosis is confirmed, or the chronically overweight person who’s failed at several diets and decides to eat whatever the heck she wants and just enjoy it, there are people who say to themselves, “What’s the use? I’ve already blown it where God is concerned. I’ve known what I was supposed to do and I haven’t done it, so now it’s too late. I’m not even going to try anymore. I’ve got nothing to gain from whatever I might have to deny myself, so I may as well enjoy ‘this life’ to the fullest, and take my lumps from the Almighty when they come. Besides, why would I want to go the Heaven anyway? All my friends will be in Hell!” This is usually followed by a nervous chuckle.

That’s where today’s parable comes to the rescue. Can you hear it—like the U.S. Cavalry charging over the hill to save the day? There’s a landowner, a farmer,  who needs temp workers—casual day laborers—to work in his field, most likely to harvest the crop. At the crack of dawn, he hires several, and puts them to work with a verbal promise and a handshake: they will receive the going rate for one day’s work. It’s all above board; nobody’s taking advantage of anybody, no one’s cheating or getting exploited. At various points throughout the day, the landowner keeps hiring workers, promising only to pay them fairly—everyone assumed, no doubt, that they would get a percentage of a full day’s pay in proportion to their actual hours worked. Even when the sun had nearly gone down, at the proverbial “eleventh hour,” more laborers are added to the crew, with the same promise. When the workday is finally over, all the workers line up to get paid, starting with the ones who were hired most recently. To their undoubted delight, they are handed, in cash, a sum equal to a full day’s pay, even though they had worked only an hour or so. When the people who had been working since dawn saw this, they quickly did the mental math, got out their cell phones and called their travel agents to book a condo at the beach for the weekend! But when they made it to the paymaster, they were given exactly the same amount every other worker had received, which, coincidentally, was the precise amount they had agreed on at the beginning of the day. When they cried “Foul!” they were reminded of this simple fact, and there was nothing else they could say.

At the end of the parable, then, Jesus adds the tag line: “So the last will be first, and the first last.” God’s economy is not like a human economy. Different rules apply, and we would do well to jettison our assumptions. The good news for most of us in this parable—well, all of us, actually, if we’ve ever done something we ought not to have done, or left undone something we ought to have done—the good news is that it’s never too late to make a change. In fact, latecomers get preferential treatment! They get a full share of the blessings of the Kingdom of God, even though they may have signed on at the “eleventh hour.”  And just what is the main benefit of “getting right” with God, whether it’s at the beginning of the day, or the end of the day? In a word—peace. Inner peace, to be specific. Inner peace that flows from the knowledge that God stands ready and eager to forgive us for whatever garbage may be in our past: stupid things we’ve done, nasty things we’ve done, good and noble and virtuous and honorable things we had an opportunity to do, but didn’t. God’s forgiveness gives us a clear conscience, which I might define as the ability to look yourself in the eye in a mirror without shame or regret. What a gift that is!

Forgiveness for the past, and comfort in the present—this, too, is part of the “compensation package” we receive from the hand of God, no matter what time of day we begin working for Him. God’s own Holy Spirit comes to take up residence in our hearts when we are baptized. Sometimes we completely ignore this house guest, but it’s never too late to provide a proper welcome. When we do, we find all sorts of unexpected resources available to us. We find strength. We find purpose. We find a sense of direction. We find the power to change, to become the people we’ve always wanted to be, but never thought we could become. And this all happens in the context of a supportive community of faith and shared prayer—the Church.

Forgiveness for the past, comfort in the present—and, finally, hope for the future. Coming to faith in Jesus Christ in the community of his Church endows us with a future—a future marked by hope, and by the prospect of unclouded joy. Most of us have experienced periods of happiness in our lives, periods of joy, sometimes even euphoria. But there's always a cloud on the horizon of some sort, always an undercurrent of fear of anxiety even in our happiest moments. Today I'm pretty ecstatic about the Cubs clinching the division title! But, trust me, there's a big cloud in the sky called the playoffs, so my joy is conditional. But the promise that accompanies faith in Christ is the prospect of unconditional joy, unreserved joy—joy in the very presence of God.  This hope, in turn, gives stability and shape to our lives here and now.

So the good news is, Come and get it! What’s holding you back? Even if it’s the “eleventh hour” for you, come to work, and collect a full “day’s” pay. We serve a generous and loving God who wants to shower His blessings on us, if we will only open our hearts to receive them. Amen.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

A: Proper 18 (2008)

Matthew 18:15-20 
Ezekiel 33:1-11 

Well ... Have you committed any sins lately? 

I know I have, and I would bet you have too! 

Have you been approached lately by a member of this congregation who claimed to have been wronged by you, and asked to make amends? Perhaps ... but that would be a relatively unusual occurrence, would it not? 

Have you been ganged up on lately by two or three fellow parishioners of St Anne’s who have attempted to convince you of some wrongdoing on your part, and that you should change your ways? Again, not outside the realm of possibility, but I myself would be shocked to hear of such an incident. One more question. 

Have you recently considered committing a particular sin, and been stopped in your tracks by the thought of receiving a phone call from me or from the Senior Warden asking you to appear before the next meeting of the Vestry and explain your behavior? Here, I believe, we truly cross the line between conceivable reality and the Twilight Zone!  

I know I said only one more question, but ... I lied. Have you ever heard of anyone having his or her name removed from the parish list, and being physically prevented from entering the church on Sunday morning? 

As far out as these possibilities sound, they are precisely what Jesus the Christ, as recorded in St Matthew's gospel, envisions as routine disciplinary procedures for his church! And at the root of these procedures is the hard reality that Christians, despite being Christians, continue to be sinners. We are, by grace through faith, in the process of being recreated into the image of Christ, but the emphasis here is on "in the process." For most of us, it's a process that is still a long way from completion.  

The fact of our sinfulness is of no small consequence. Sinful behavior, no matter how minor the particular act, is destructive behavior. Any sin is potentially a deadly sin for the individual who commits it, because it inhibits the free flow of God's love and grace in that person's life. Sin is the disease and Christ is the cure, but he does not force himself on anyone. Left unchecked, sin is spiritually fatal. It leads to the permanent separation of a soul from its creator, which is the very definition of Hell itself. But any sin is also potentially a deadly sin for the larger Christian community, the family of the Church, because it inhibits the church's mission and witness in the world. For better or for worse, the world out there judges the Church in here much more for what we do than for what we say. In the eyes of those to whom our mission and witness is directed, the Church's credibility is no stronger than the personal integrity of her individual members. They look for us to walk what we talk, practice what we preach. Men and women for whom Christ died have rejected his gospel because they have perceived his followers to be hypocrites.

Some time ago I discovered an on-line bulletin board for atheists and agnostics. I did some snooping around and was dismayed to find that a majority of self-professed atheists and agnostics who posted messages on this particular bulletin board were at one time or another deeply wounded by the Church or by an individual Christian. They have rejected the gospel—rejected God himself—because of that wound. Indeed, our sins are of no small consequence. 

Yet, as destructive as our sinful behavior is, both personally and corporately, we tend to bend over backwards not to confront one another about it. One reason we don't confront one another about our destructive sinful behavior is our regard for a slightly modified version of the golden rule: “Don't do unto others what you would not have them do unto you.” We're afraid of being made to face our own sin, so we have “gentleman's agreement” to simply not bring up the subject, except in very general terms and from very safe places—like pulpits! If we venture to violate the agreement of “mind your own business”, we do so at some degree of personal risk. It will undoubtedly rock the boat, and make it very awkward to polish candlesticks or hand out bulletins with that person next weekend.
Then there's the understandable fear of becoming, or being victimized by, a genuine busybody—one who takes a compulsive and inappropriate interest in others' affairs. There's also the fear of making a mistake, of completely misjudging a situation, and being made a fool of. What it amounts to is that we generally don't trust one another enough to risk confronting one another with our wrongdoing, even when we're the victim of it, and much less when the wrongdoing could be construed as someone else's private business. 

“If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone,” Jesus says. There is something about the nature of our life together—in this parish, and in most of the other parishes of Christendom—that makes it exceedingly difficult to successfully put into practice this simple directive from our Lord.  

Jesus continues, “If he does not listen, take one or two others along with you ... and if he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church ... And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a gentile and a tax collector"—which is to say, kick him out and bolt the door.

What can I say? This is so far removed from our normal experience of church life that it's almost impossible to even connect with it. If I, or the Vestry, or some committee, even talked about systematically implementing the sequence of disciplinary events outlined in today's gospel—well, I can hear the laughter already. It would be, quite literally, incredible, unbelievable. Our habits of thought and feeling, our instincts, our assumptions—everything about our social fabric—is not set up to gracefully and effectively receive such a proposal. (And please don't think I'm singling out St Anne's here—this applies equally to most any parish in any church.)

Somehow we've adopted the notion that the be-all and end all of our relationships within the church is that we're nice to each other. Now I'm not trying to demean good manners, but “being nice” is not the ultimate Christian value. Those of us who have the professional responsibility of providing pastoral care are among the worst offenders here: In tending the flock of Christ, we're so afraid that a sheep might jump to another fold that we avoid ever using the business end of our shepherd's crook.  

The bottom line is this: For whatever reason, the internal discipline of the church is lax, if not non-existent. And the consequences of this lack of discipline are that people who are precious to God are allowed to slowly commit spiritual suicide, and the witness of the church in and to the world loses its power and credibility. But hear the words of the prophet Ezekiel, which are addressed to us today as surely as they were to the Jewish exiles in Babylon 2,500 years ago:

“If I say to the wicked, o wicked man, you shall surely die, and you do not speak to warn the wicked to turn from his way, that wicked man shall die in his iniquity, but his blood I will require at your hand.”

These are sobering words. God indeed does not hold us responsible for the actions and decisions of others. But he does hold us responsible for speaking a word of warning to a brother or sister in Christ who is about to fall off a spiritual cliff, or is doing something that undermines the mission of the Church to which we are all committed. Together, we have an obligation to somehow find a way of taking seriously the fact that we are all spiritually interdependent on one another. We've got to deal with our destructive sinful behavior in a way that is credible and effective, in a way that enables us to either give it or receive it, in faith, in hope, and in charity, by the grace of God.  

Believe me, no one is more aware than I am as I stand before you at this moment, that I'm talking about something that is much more easily said than done. In fact—I’ll make a confession: I don't even have a clear vision of what it would look like if what I'm talking about actually came to pass! I have a suspicion that the evolution of small groups—cell groups—is leading us in the right direction, but it's still a cloudy picture.  

I do believe, however, that change in perception is usually a pre-requisite to change in behavior. And in this case, I believe we need to change our perception in one fundamentally important area. We need to change our perception of one word that, in all four gospels, occurs only in Matthew, and within Matthew's gospel, is found only in this passage and the one we read two weeks ago. “If he refuses to listen ... tell it to the Church.”

Tell it to the church.  

We tend to think of the Church as an institution, and institution is a rich image. It contains everything from hierarchies and chains-of command, to constitutions and by-laws, to standard operating procedures, to membership requirements and initiations, to warm fuzzy feelings of comradeship and togetherness. The Church, indeed, includes institutional aspects, and these institutional aspects of the church are necessary and important, even good.
But I would suggest to you that the institution is perhaps the least helpful single image of the church one could choose, because it also carries with it the idea of being a voluntary association. We join the Rotary club, or the Country Club, or whatever, if we perceive that membership would be advantageous or desirable. And when we no longer find it advantageous or desirable, we can resign or renounce or revoke, or do whatever we need to do to end our association with the institution. The institution can even end its relationship with itself if it sees fit, by disbanding. But one thing an institution cannot do is interfere in our personal lives. The country club may require white shoes on the tennis court, but it can't tell its members what to wear at the grocery store. So if we perceive of the Church as an institution, it's no wonder that we hesitate to either give or receive discipline through her. But the Church is not, in its essence, an institution. The Church is not merely an aggregation of individuals who perceive that they share similar opinions or experiences about God and want to get together for worship or fellowship or service or whatever. The Church is a tribe, a clan, family. The prototype for the church was the ancient Hebrew nation, the twelve tribes of Israel. They were related by blood. We are related by water, the water of baptism. And in this case, water is thicker than blood! One does not choose to become a member of a tribe—one is born into it. One does not apply for admission to a family—one is born or adopted into it. We are adopted into the family of the Church, the Christian tribe, at our baptism. And, most importantly, we can't resign from our family. We can abandon or betray it, but we can't ever stop being a member of it. At the font, we were marked as Christ's own forever, and nothing can erase that mark.  

If we can alter our perception from church-as-institution to church-as-tribe, if we change the way we think about the Church from being a voluntary association to being a family, an extended family which can never disown us, we are moving in the direction of experiencing the bonds of trust, of mutual confidence. And although a functioning family is never perfect, it does create the environment in which discipline, even if not always or ever successful, is at least credible. It creates the environment in which it is natural for members to express concern about one another, in which it is expected that a warning about impending danger is not considered an unwarranted intrusion into personal affairs, but as evidence of love, the love of one family member for another.  

As long as we choose to relate to the Church as an institution, we will always recoil at the thought of Church discipline. But if we see the church as an extended family into which we have been born, we have a chance, at least, of developing the trust necessary to submit to her discipline. And if we are able to do that, we will ensure that our sins never become deadly sins, either for ourselves, or for those who may depend on us as mediators of the word of the Lord and the gospel of his Christ.