Matthew 22:15-22

There is a change in tone and feel as Jesus arrives in Jerusalem fresh from the hopes and excitement of his teaching ministry in Galilee. The mood becomes increasingly confrontational. Jesus’ focus becomes one of avoiding the traps that are being set for him.

images-1In the atmosphere of religious and political extremes that characterized Jerusalem under the yoke of Roman occupation, there is small wiggle room between blasphemy on the one side, and treason on the other. It’s into this double-bind space that a particularly, unholy alliance of Herodian (the royal party of collaboration) and Pharisee (the religious part of religious reform) factions seek to lure Jesus. The question is: is it lawful to pay the poll tax (a flat-rate personal tax) to Rome? If Jesus answers yes, he commits blasphemy – admitting that Caesar is a rival authority to God. If his answer is no, he commits treason – denying the authority and what’s more the divinity of the Emporer.

How will Jesus answer them? To answer yes, or no are both dangerous options. Yet, so too is any attempt to offer a middle way answer.  As we know only too well from contemporary American political debate, when an atmosphere of fear and mutual contempt characterizes a separation of competing political and religious world views, a moderate view pleases no-one.

One can only admire Jesus’ dexterity. With one question: whose, head is on the coin?  he draws both interlocutors into the trap they think they are setting for him. I imagine it’s one of the Herodians who produces the coin. To possess such a coin within the Temple precincts is in itself an act of blasphemy. Caesar’s head, a forbidden graven image, appears on the coin. However, it’s the inscription that encircles the head of Caesar that proclaims him as divine that goes to the heart of the matter. Jesus’ next move is to state that some things are owed to civil authority and some things are owed to God. It appears simple, honor your obligation to each and don’t get them mixed up!

Jesus answers by not really answering. His answer silences his opponents, but we are still left with the unanswered question: what does he really mean?

Separation of Church and State

The health of the American body politic rests upon several nice and images-1neat separations connected with today’s Gospel reading. The most obvious is the separation of Church and State enshrined in the Constitution.  We are mostly, in agreement that: render unto Caesar  means an obligation to submit to the lawful exercise of civil authority. Therefore, although some of us question the right of the government to levy taxes, few of us refuse to pay them. We are less clear as to what: render unto God the things of God, means.  Why might that be?

Jesus, the Pharisees, and the Great Seal of the United States are all in agreement. Each affirms the truth of the motto on the Great Seal: In God We Trust. It’s an interesting aside to note that from 1782 until 1956 the motto on the Great Seal was : E Pluaribus Unam -out of many, one. In 1957 it was changed to: In God We Trust. Interesting to speculate on the reason for the change. But best not go there at the moment.

In other words, there is a legitimate distinction to be made between Church and State, but not between God and State. Yet here, as in most areas of our lives we play a subtle game of selective cognizance.

Ownership, allegiance, and accountability

There’s a nice story told about the Christian conversion of the Gauls.images-1 When the Christian missionaries led these Celtic warriors into the water for baptism, as the man was submerged under the water he raised his right arm up so that his arm and hand remained above the water.  The intent here is clear. The warrior was saying: my sword arm and hand do not belong to God and with these I reserve the right to kill and maim. 

Whatever the historical veracity of this story it reflects a common view today. While we may be made in the image of God and therefore everything about us belongs to God, our money at best – belongs to us, and at worst – to the Government. As I like to put it, we live as if our hearts belong to God, but not our wallets.

The heart of this Gospel encounter is not concerned with creating a clean separation between God and Mammon, or between civil and religious authority. The central issue concerns allegiance and ownership. To whom, or to what do we owe allegiance? Over which aspects of our life do we have a right to exercise ownership?

The way we choose to answer these questions reveals the kind of persons we long to be, as well as the kind of community we envision ourselves becoming?

Getting to the point

At St Martin’s, Sunday October 19th is when we launch our Annual Renewal Campaign (ARC).  The Church tells us that stewardship is more than what we do with our money. But we all have a sneaking suspicion that this is mere window dressing when the only time of the year we really address issues of stewardship is in preparation for setting the next year’s budget.

You don’t need me to tell you that money matters. It matters because like every other aspect of our lives money goes to the heart of our spiritual values. Episcopalians often have an impoverished thinking about our financial pledge. We see it as giving to the parish budget. How unsexy is that? Neither is it very spiritually fulfilling! We have a need to expect that our financial generosity will bear richer fruit. Through our giving we long for fruit that leaves us with a sense of having made a difference, and not simply kept the lights on.

So, let me reframe. Let me state that while stewardship is a year-long program of nurturing the life of our community, it commences with the conversation about our accountability before God in the area of financial responsibility. The Gospel we hear today invites us to see stewardship hinging upon the core issues of allegiance and ownership. While there is a practical connection between our ARC and next year’s budget, there is no spiritual connection between the two. This bears endlessly repeating!

There is a real synchronicity between our ARC and the Gospel of the day. Several questions occur at this point:

  1. The main question is not how much do we need to give to meet next year’s budget? The question before us is to whom do we owe allegiance for everything that is good in our lives?
  2. Do we view the use of money in relation to our primary allegiance to God, or is money, in effect our Celtic warrior’s sword arm?
  3. Do we think our financial health and security are the fruit of our own achievement, or the grace-filled gift from God?

Jesus’ confrontation with the Herodians and Pharisees challenges our comfortable assumption that our money is the product of our own skillfulness, our own good luck, or our privileged ability to command a nice financial reward? Jesus challenges us to think about our primary allegiances. He also invites us to an encounter with gratitude as our response to God for the good things we have been given to enjoy.

The process

On November 16th, our ARC concludes with Ingathering Sunday. This is also the date the Bishop comes to install me as St Martin’s 12th rector.  Our theme between now and then is not how much do we need to give to next year budget. Our theme is celebrating our community’s rich human potential. We begin with an acknowledgement of gratitude to God for the many gifts, imagesstrengths, and qualities that already characterise our individual lives, and life together in our St Martin’s community.

As we celebrate these things, I invite us to enter into an intentional conversation together about gratitude and generosity. In the coming week you will all receive a communication from me in the mail. In it I explain in more detail how we might go about structuring our conversation about gratitude and generosity.

These conversations begin from an encounter with our a debt of gratitude to God. Drilling down to the next layer, I invite us to specifically reflect on three further questions:

  1. Who are the persons who fill our lives with a joy and quality of life that brings us to our knees, overwhelmed by a deep thankfulness to God? A variation on this question might be for some of us, who have the persons been that have filled our life with a quality that continues to overwhelm us with a deep thankfulness to God?
  2. What are the experiences, the events that have deeply shaped our lives, experience of grace and love given to us against all the odds of probability, that on contemplation bring us to our knees in thankfulness for the reckless generosity of God?
  3. Reconnecting with these places of personal encounter with the generosity towards God, can we risk to share our experience of gratitude, inviting others to open to a similar experience in their own lives?

In conclusion

Jesus answers his opponents by implicating them in the tensions they seek to entrap him within. His answer silences them, but we are still left with the unanswered question: what does he really mean?

It is never an easy task to negotiate our way in today’s world amidst the many siren calls that offer attractive, yet fruitless allegiances. Today’s Gospel challenges us to consider how we displace God from the center of our sense of allegiance. Thinking of ourselves as the source of the good we enjoy, seeing ourselves as the ultimate authority is the best definition I know of blasphemy.

In my own life I note how an allegiance to fear, to power, or the complacency of success, continually tempt me. Jesus does not say that it is easy living in the tension between the things of Caesar, and the things of God. He simply warns us about the competing powers and influences vying to sway us, to capture our hearts, and ultimately to own us?  When we displace God as the focus of our allegiance we render ourselves vulnerable. Under the illusion of owning ourselves, we become vulnerable to being owned by competing worldly allegiances.

Jesus’ interlocutors in today’s Gospel go away amazed. I invite us to deepen our community’s financial stewardship conversation over the next weeks through a personal encounter with our experience of gratitude for God’s generosity. Who knows, maybe we too can become amazed by what we begin to glimpse ourselves being capable of.

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Dressing for the Kingdom

I don’t know when bifocal spectacles were invented? I do remember when I was young seeing people with two pairs of spectacles – one for short and one for long sighted purposes. You sometimes still see the older style of bifocals -you know, the ones with the clear line across the middle, separating short and long sighted lenses. Most of us who are able to tolerate the initial disorienting effect until our vision adjusts are thankful for the invention of varifocal lenses. Varifocals enable the wearer to move seamlessly from short to long sighted zones in what otherwise appears to the naked eye to be one undivided lens.

I offer this as an analogy for reading scripture. This analogy is particularly useful in learning how to read the Gospels. The Gospels are the foundational narratives of the Christian Faith, in that they weave accounts of the earthly life and ministry of Jesus. From Gospel to Gospel, these accounts are similar, and yet quite different in emphasis. They spin the story of Jesus.

I feel we need to rehabilitate the word spin. We tend to use it pejoratively today because we live in a world where mass means of communication bombard us with catch phrases and sound bites, which it seems are often designed to obscure rather than clarify truth. Yet, when it comes to story, there is no objective independent story telling. There is only the story as a construction of experience. Stories make sense of the complexity of our experience of the world. It is this process of constructing meaning, rather than obfuscation that I mean when I use the word spin

All stories contain spin, even our own life stories, as I explored in my entry – If to err is human- so too is to forgive[1]. This is also true of all Scripture. We need a good pair of varifocal lenses, firmly planted across the bridge of our noses when we come to read the Gospel texts.

Through the close-up lens

Matthew 22:1-14 through the short-sight zone of our varifocals appears as a quite extraordinary tale. It assaults our sense of credulity at more than one point. In last week’s reflection- Might Jesus have been a Pharisee, I described the parable medium that Jesus used as his primary teaching tool as a story of the everyday life that suddenly whacks you in the side of the head. Today’s parable of the royal wedding feast not only whacks us in the side of the head, it delivers a punch or two to the gut.

The parable

It’s a story about a King who invites people to the wedding of his son. When he finds out that his selected guests have not only declined his invitation but they have killed the servants bearing the invitation. He retaliates by sending out the militia and not only killing them all, but devastating their city, as well. Now it’s not lost on us that the king is clearly a representation for God. So it’s particularly difficult for us when we read that God behaves vindictively to such devastating effect – whack!

The King then sends his servants out to invite anyyone they encounter in the streets, regardless of their station in life or the morality of their lives. Aahh, we sign in relief, as God seems to have recovered and is acting back in character. For over the last few weeks in the parables of the vineyard we have been presented with images of God as a reckless practitioner of generosity.

All seems well. The wedding hall is full to over flowing and a beaming King makes his entry only to discover that one of the guests has gained entry without the seemingly required wedding garment – where did that requirement suddenly spring from? The King a.k.a, God seems to lose it again and has the man cast out of the feast and condemned to outer darkness – i.e. damnation – whack, whack, punch! 

In short sight this is not a story that inspires in us much confidence in being able to safely predict God’s behavior. After all, our feeling safe as a condition for being able to trust one another rests firmly on our being able to reasonably predict one another’s behavior. We get really nervous when someone starts acting unpredictably, God included.

This leads me to the question: so is this parable helpful in any way? What on earth is Jesus’ point here? The moral of the story seems to be: be careful when refusing invitations, and if you do accept, make sure you have the right clothes for the party.

Through the long distance lens

As we lift our eyes towards the long-sight zone of our varifocals we begin to discern the outlines of a different story. To put it boldly, this original Jesus parable is being spun by Matthew for his own purposes.

Matthew is telling a related, but quite different story from the one Jesus tells in the context of his confrontation with the Temple authorities. It’s related in that we can still discern Jesus’ teaching, but this core teaching of Jesus is overlaid with the events and concerns that are dominating the lives of Matthew and his community.

Matthew’s story is that God invited his beloved Israel to his royal banquet, but Israel declined to come. Not only did Israel decline, but it acted violently towards God’s servants, a.k.a, the Hebrew Prophets, and ultimately towards the fulfillment of the prophets, Jesus himself. God punished Israel by sending the Roman Legions against Jersualem, killing and scattering its populace and laying waste to the great Temple. The Roman destruction of the Temple in 70 AD takes place a good 40 years after Jesus death. With hind-sight Matthew, writing around 90AD inserts this event into the original parable of Jesus with the line about the King’s retribution. This becomes clearer to us as we look at the text through our long-sight lens.

In Matthew’s story the guests at the banquet are now the rag-tag collection of odds and sods, forced into a new community as a result of being outcast from their community of origin, i.e. the fledgling Jewish Christians who are now outcast from their synagogues. This new community needs to construct its own story to help it make sense of the new situation it finds itself in. Matthew, in continuity with Jewish tradition is their scribe. Like all scribes throughout Israel’s history, his job is to reinterpret the faith story in the light of current events.

Matthew tacks onto the end of the parable about the royal wedding a quite separate story about the wedding garment. If this is original to Jesus, it must come from a completely different context and so its original meaning seems unclear. What Matthew intends it to mean however, is clear. Within this rag tag band of odds and sods, that is the emerging Church, while many differences must be tolerated, there are some fundamental standards that are to be enforced to ensue good order. The wedding garment is a metaphor for correct behavior.

What might correct behavior mean in Matthew’s community? Correct behavior in any community is more than obeying the by-laws and reflecting the socially accepted norms. Correct behavior is behavior that strengthens the bonds of affection, friendship, relationship, and commonality. Maverick and unpredictable behavior that sows seeds of discord and corrodes trust in the members of a community’s ability to communicate effectively with one another is the equivalent of being found at the banquet without the right clothes. Matthew is saying, in his new and vulnerable community this kind of behavior cannot be tolerated. I might add that no community, fledgling or otherwise, is able to tolerate for too long the behavior of individual members when it corrodes the bonds of relationship and trust.

Taking our varifocals off

Taking our varifocals off for a moment we now begin to reflect on the parable of the wedding feast and its appendix, the story of the wedding garment, from our own contemporary perspective.

When we interpret this parable within the wider message that Jesus teaches concerning the expectations of the kingdoms, what kind of story do we receive? This is a story about invitation and response to invitation. Like the Hebrew Prophets who precede him, Jesus issues God’s invitation for us to return to the covenant, which God established with Abraham and has renewed again and again throughout history. So when the king a.k.a, God, finds that those he longs to invite to his banquet decline, he reissues the invitation again and again. Maybe the original invitees do or don’t accept, but over time many who initially were regarded, or may have regarded themselves as not among the invited, with joy receive and accept the invitation.

The theological nature of acceptance

You and I are the recipients of an invitation to come into covenant with God, made new through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Like Matthew, we too are scribes of the Kingdom and in our interpretation of God’s invitation, the covenant with Israel has not been superseded. It has simply been extended so that it now include us. Perhaps we have not seen it that way?

The personal nature of acceptance

Perhaps we have assumed that we are not included in the invitation. Or perhaps we have taken our invitation so much for granted that we have neglected to actually accept. As we come into covenant with God, there is a clear sense that each party to the covenant bears an appropriate responsibility. When one party fails to discharge their responsibility then the covenant is rendered inoperable.

Jesus is saying to us that the primary expectation for the coming of the kingdom is that we will respond to God’s invitation and take up our responsibility to collaborate with God in the Kingdom’s coming. A fruit of that acceptance is the fostering of deep and meaningful bonds between us within the context of our community (ies). It is to us as a community that God speaks, and it is from and through us working together as a community that the expectations of the Kingdom will be advanced. Perhaps we have not understood it this way?

The banquet as a metaphor for the Kingdom

Having accepted God’s invitation to become co-creators of the Kingdom, it is important that our clothing reflects the gravity of our having been invited into covenant by God. At St Martin’s our response to God’s invitation means putting on our most festive clothes and throwing ourselves extravagantly into a celebration of our diversity, and the rich human potential of our members. We celebrate our enormous potential as a community to make a difference in one another’s lives. We celebrate with gratitude and thanksgiving the abundance of God’s generosity towards us. Through our celebration of our common life we work tirelessly to make a difference in the world around us, a world in desperate need of the celebration of the love of God.

Over the coming month, the month of our Annual Renewal Campaign, how might we as a community join together in affirming our acceptance of the invitation to come in covenant relationship with God? Might we not put on our wedding garments and celebrate with true joy our God’s generous invitation to make the Kingdom real in our own time? An invitation requires an acceptance to become effective. Let’s not overlook our responsibility to respond.

[1] http://relationalrealities.com/2014/09/13/if-to-err-is-human-so-too-is-to-forgive/

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Might Jesus have been a Pharisee? A commentary on the Parable of the Wicked Tenants.

Jesus offers three parables concerning vineyards. Two weeks ago we explored in the sermon entitled Lord, do not give us our just deserts, the parable about the hiring and payment of workers in the vineyard. The storyline of this parable presents us with an interesting twist on generosity. We are shown that the generosity of God is somewhat reckless and makes no sense to us. It is in fact, an affront to our normal expectations of fairness. It turns our sense of justice upside-down.

Last week in the parable of the two sons concerning their father’s request to work in the family vineyard we explored our need to experience ourselves making a difference in the wider world. By accepting God’s call for us to enter into a collaborate participation within a parish community, we can make a difference in the world. You can read more at Making a difference.

wicked tenantsToday we receive a further parable concerning the action of wicked tenants who through murder attempt to dispossess a vineyard’s rightful owner. Of the three vineyard parables this is the most challenging and difficult for us to interpret.

The parable as a story rooted in a social and economic context

Jesus has just arrived in Jerusalem having journeyed from Galilee. As it remains today, Galilee was the northern most province of Jewish territory. In the 1st Century however, the population of Galilee was mixed. A largely, Jewish rural peasantry lived alongside a Greek and Roman urban commercial class. Together with the local Jewish aristocracy, the gentile commercial class owned large tracts of land, which they leased to be farmed by the Jewish tenant farmers. This constituted a traditional feudal economy.

An escalation in rural unrest swept the Galilean countryside as the feudal balance of privileges and obligations between landowner and tenant farmer came under threat from the increasing commercialization of farming, necessary to meet the growing food security needs of the Roman Empire. This situation, not unknown in our own day resulted in severe exploitation of the tenant farmers, who in many cases were being reduced to landless peasant laborers. The plight of the itinerant peasant laborers is clearly at the heart of Jesus’ parable of the workers in the vineyard.

The parable of the wicked tenants is a tale of the violent resistance of tenant leaseholders to a shifting economy, a shift that results in growing general unrest throughout the Galilean countryside. 

The parable as a story rooted in a conflict between power and authority

Having arrived in the Jerusalem Temple, Matthew shows Jesus embroiled in an escalating argument with the Temple authorities. The Jerusalem Temple was not only the center of Jewish religion, it was also an oppressive socio-economic institution that taxed and controlled the populace as a proxy of the Roman occupation. Jesus is directly challenging the corruption of religious authority through the influences of economic and social power.

In the vineyard parables, and especially in the parable of the wicked tenants, Jesus is asserting his claim to represent the Kingdom authority of God. The Kingdom of God is a concept at the heart of the Oral Tradition of the Jewish prophets. This tradition rails continually against the political corruption of the Law of Moses and the exploitation of power under the guise of religious authority.

Listen to another parable, Jesus says to the priests and scribes. By telling the story  as a story echoing the socio-economic tensions of the time, Jesus plays on their aristocratic outrage in the face of the affront to their rightful privileges posed by resistance of the populace. In this reading the Temple Authorities see themselves as the legal landowner. Yet, Jesus’ story also contextualizes a much older story that would be known to his hearers. Jesus echoes Isaiah’s vineyard parable set as the first reading of 17th Sunday after Pentecost.

Parable genre

The parable is a form of story telling that lures hearers into a false sense of security. It invites them to identify with the familiar elements in the storyline so as to paint themselves in the best light. Just when they are comfortable it whacks them in the side of the head with a conclusion that is so counter intuitive as to seem outrageous.

Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants? They said to him, ‘He will put those wretches to a miserable death and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at harvest time’. Now Jesus whacks them. Have you never read the scriptures: … when the chief priest and the Pharisees hear this … they realized that he was speaking about them.

Matthew’s use of Jesus’ parable of the wicked tenants

Matthew adapts the parable to speak to his own context. For Jesus, this parable, along with all the parables he tells, but especially the vineyard parables, proclaims the expectation of the Kingdom of God. The expectation of the Kingdom reveals how God sees things within the context of the in-breaking of a new divine order. For Matthew the parable becomes a story about the Christian Church. Matthew and all the Evangelists conflate the Kingdom and the Church. To this day we inherit a long tradition of seeing the Kingdom and the Church as if they are coterminous. Jesus speaks only about the Kingdom.

Following Matthew’s lead, the Christian Church, conflating Kingdom and Church, has interpreted this parable as a parable of how God as the landowner has expelled the wicked Jewish tenants and given the vineyard to the new Christian tenants. God sends the prophets of Israel again and again to call the Jewish tenants to pay what they owe. Each time they kill the prophet. Finally, they kill the heir, i.e. Jesus. God punishes Israel by removing it from the tenancy.

This reflects the struggle of Matthew’s small and fragile Christian community against the powerful synagogues with their Pharisee rabbis. Matthew’s treatment is understandable within his context. Yet, from the end of chapter 21 and throughout 22, Matthew ratchets up an astonishing invective against the Pharisees. 2000 years of anti-Semitism flow from Matthew’s and the other Evangelists adaptations of the teaching of Jesus to their contexts.

This last week, our Jewish neighbors have been celebrating their High Holy Days, from Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the New Year. For Christians to receive this gospel with its overt anti-Semitism needs some further comment.

An astonishing assertion

Jesus’ argument is with the Temple Authorities, the priests and scribes of the aristocratic Sadducee party. By contrast the Pharisees represented a great religious reform movement that vehemently opposed the Jerusalem-based, Sadducee priesthood with its strangle-hold on power. 

There is considerable evidence to suppose that Jesus was himself, a Pharisee. Jesus sees the teaching of the Prophets, the Oral Tradition, as a complementary authority to the Law of Moses. This is also the Pharisee position. His teaching on the resurrection of the dead is a Pharisee teaching. His emphasis on the coming of the Kingdom of God is a Pharisee expectation. Even if Jesus was not actually a card carrying Pharisee, his view of the world was clearly aligned with theirs. Jesus clearly preaches and teaches within the great awakening that gives rise to the Pharisaic reform movement taking place in 1st Century Judaism.

The 1st century socio-economic tensions that Jesus echos in his teachings on the Kingdom of God finally boil over into series of Jewish rebellions against the Romans in the 60’s AD. The Jewish wars culminate in the Roman destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in 70AD. With the end of the Temple there is an end of the priesthood. With the loss of the Temple and its power structure in Jewish society the Sadducee’s fade from history. The Pharisees become the movement that reconstitutes Judaism, a new Judaism that blossoms into the rabbinic movement that gives Judaism its shape today. This process is going on along side a similar process that is leading to the emergence of the Christian Church. Each movement reflects many common elements.

Within the time frame in which Matthew is writing the rabbis, who are codifying a reformed Judaism finally decide that it’s no longer judicious to tolerate the Jewish Christians within the broad tent of the synagogue. They expel the Christian Jews. Pharisaic Judaism and the young Christian Church, despite their clear similarities, now become bitter rivals. The animosity between Jew and Christian begins here in the final decade of the 1st century. This is why Matthew slips the Pharisees in as allies of the priests and the scribes in their confrontation with Jesus. Matthew does so not because they were actually Jesus’ rivals, but because they are really his rivals, with whom he and his community are in tension. 

Our use of the parable of the wicked tenants

This is a parable that has been traditionally interpreted as pointing to God’s repudiation of his covenant with Israel. Yet, for me it is the parable that calls us as Christians to take a long hard at our complacency.

The ancient prejudice

Anti-Semitism is once again on the rise. We must not blindly accept the Gospel writers contextualization of 1st and 2nd Century Jewish-Christian conflict as the justification for the perpetuation of anti-Semitism. It is currently very difficult, especially for American Jewry to distinguish between the State of Israel and the religion of Judaism. Rabbi’s tread carefully along a tightrope they are bound to fall off at some point. They will either offend conservative members who conflate Israel and Judaism, or they will offend liberal members who feel strongly that a Jewish voice must be heard in critique of Israeli treatment of the Palestinians. Christians must not participate in a rise of anti-Semitism under the guise of a critique of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians. If it’s not possible at the moment for Jews to always keep the two separate, there is no excuse for us failing to do so.

A selective deafness

We can be surprising deaf at those times when we separate Jesus’ clear teaching on the expectations of the Kingdom of God from the mission of the Church. The Church is not the Kingdom, though its charge is to be an agent of the Kingdom. As the Church we are called to work tirelessly in the vineyard of God’s Kingdom to advance the cause of justice in this world.

The Church frustrates the expectations of Kingdom when Christians fain hard of hearing, refusing to hear the radical message on social and economic justice that lies at the heart of Jesus’ teaching on the Kingdom of God.

Self-satisfaction

Our third sin is that of self-satisfaction and self-assertion. As Episcopalians we need to repent of our uncritical acceptance of certain social values as Christian values. The social values of the autonomous individual, strong and independent, tempt us into the sin of believing that we are the authors of our own salvation. The benefits of a secure and successful life are not the fruits of our own cleverness. They are the gifts from God for which the correct response is gratitude. Knowing our dependence on God’s reckless generosity, we take the gifts given us to enjoy, so that through self-giving and generous lives, we express our gratitude by working together to build the Kingdom God in our several generations.

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Making a difference

A cry erupts from our hearts – our  cri de coeur – notice how things always sound more eloquent in French. A cry erupts: how can I/we make a difference? Because we often don’t see how we really do make a difference through the ordinary everyday events of living our lives, our cri de coeur becomes – how can we experience ourselves making a difference? 

For me, this is a deeply personal question. However, I feel this not just as my question. I feel it personally in relation to my community. So now the question moves towards a partial answer as it broadens into – can I experience myself making a difference through being part of a community that makes a difference? 

Having broadened the focus of the cry of my heart to encompass my role in community action, I now narrow it down again to myself. Now, my  cri de couer becomes – where does my responsibility lie to ensure that my community is making a difference in the world? Part of the answer lies in my participating, playing my part, in the community.

Reasons for resistance

We often hear ourselves saying – it’s not my responsibility. I’m rather fond of the oft used American expression – that’s above my pay grade. The limitation of responsibility becomes a core preoccupation in our collective life, i.e. our lives lived in relationships, families, institutions, and in communities. As a society we are increasingly into the blame game. This makes taking responsibility is a fearful thing to do. Being responsible equates with being vulnerable to carrying the blame when something goes wrong.

Consequently, we live in a tension. We long to experience ourselves making a difference. The way into that for most of us is through our involvement in communities that make a difference. Yet, at the same time we fear involvement because it carries responsibility. Responsibility carries the risk of being blamed when things don’t go right. More crucially though, we fear taking-on responsibility, because of our experience of being drained and exhausted,  finding ourselves burdened by being given more responsibility than any one person is able to realistically shoulder.

So we hold back. We protect ourselves. And in so doing we experience the encroaching corrosion of a sense of futility. The experience of futility is the fruit of our feeling that there seems nothing we can do to make a difference; that there is nothing we can do to change the world for the better. Futility corrodes our self-confidence and results in our imprisonment within a cocoon of fearfulness. As a human being, the cry of my heart is an expression of my longing to move beyond my fears, into an experience of myself making a difference.

The Jesus storyline

Between last week and today the Lectionary leapfrogs to Matthew’s account of Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem. It’s odd to find ourselves here I think, because these are the events we more properly celebrate on Palm Sunday and during Holy Week.

Earlier in chapter 21 Matthew records Jesus’ arrival in the Temple precincts, where he creates a ruckus of monumental proportions. A new side of Jesus’ personality comes into view as he gives vent to rage, an emotion we have hitherto not encountered in Matthew’s depiction of Jesus.

Consequently, Jesus has really jangled the nerves of the Temple authorities, the priests and scribes. For they are not simply the religious rulers, but like the Dalai Lama, they are also the de facto civil government of the Jews and as such are directly responsible to the Roman overlords. So they are concerned about keeping a lid on subversive elements taking advantage to create civil unrest at the most volatile time of the Jewish Year, the celebration of Passover. Therefore, to put it mildly, Jesus seems to be acting in a particularly provocative manner, almost designed to bring the wrath of authority down on his head.

There is a complex argument taking place between Jesus and the authorities concerning the difference between authority and power. They have the power, and yet they are anxious about his authority. Their very denial of his authority is confirmation they think he has some. Jesus begins a cat and mouse game with them, and we will come back to his debating agility over the coming weeks.

Jesus cuts to the chase when he says to them: what do you think about the story I am now going to tell you? He then offers the parable of a father’s request to his two sons to assist him by working in the family’s vineyard. Jesus seems to be saying: look, authority is about the way you recognize or not as the case may be, your responsibilities.

The parable seems to make a point about the importance of accepting responsibility. We accept responsibility not through what we say, but through what we do. The first son refuses his father’s request. This is an action that would have been unthinkable in the patriarchy of Jesus’ day. Even-so, he appears to change his mind. Having said no, he goes into the vineyard, anyway.

Jesus’ larger point here concerns the nature of the Kingdom of God. Entry into the Kingdom is not about being the right kind of person with the right answer. Entry to the Kingdom is about our longing to be part of it, our need to be part of it, and our welcoming its arrival through our actions.

Cycling back

Matthew Skinner in his comment on this text asks the question:

Which vineyard will I choose? We don’t need many words to evoke the vineyards — places, issues, causes — where we might have been called to labor over the last few months. [1] 

As a society we are overwhelmed by the multiplicity of vineyards clamoring for our labor. We long to throw ourselves into impactful action, while at the same time fearing committing ourselves. Even if we want to say yes, but are fearful of following through.

What happens to the first son? I mentioned earlier that he seems to have had a change of mind. Changing ones mind is something we do a thousand times a day. It’s an action mostly involving little cost or consequence for us. Actually, the word Matthew uses translates better as a change of heart. The first son has a change of heart. How much more significant are those moments when we have a change of heart. A change of heart is not only a less frequent experience for us than merely changing our minds, the consequences of a change of heart are far reaching.

There are so many vineyards clamoring for our attention:

  • racism,
  • domestic violence,
  • religious bigotry,
  • the proper place of guns in society,
  • immigration reform,
  • child and family poverty,
  • a truly worldwide concern for public health.
  • the alarming deterioration of the environment, posing the single greatest danger to people everywhere on the planet.

Each of us will have our own personal list of issues and our own personal prioritizing and defining of these issues. Generally though, we mostly agree on the issues. It’s our different ways of defining the issues and our disagreement on the solutions that bedevils effective community action.

A call to action

Since the latter part of August I have been calling to the community in which I serve, for all of us to contemplate the ways we might fruitfully labor in our communal vineyard. I am hoping that my hearers will experience a siren – as in increasingly irresistible, quality to my call.

In response to Jesus’ second vineyard parable I invite the members of my community to recommence an intentional conversation around the following questions:

  1. Where – in what areas of community life – is God offering me an opportunity for fulfilling my longing to make a difference beyond myself?
  2. As a spiritual community, where – in what vineyards – might God be calling us to invest ourselves so as to make a difference in the wider world around us – in the city, in the state, in the nation, and in the world?

On Labor Day Weekend I quoted Matthew Skinner’s comment that peering into the mists of autumn we discover that we belong to one another http://relationalrealities.com/2014/08/30/jesus-take-the-wheel/.  You will now be aware that I like what Skinner has to say. So I return to him in order to define another aspect, particularly emerging from this Gospel reading, of what belonging to one another involves. He notes that:

Working in a vineyard implies patient, hard work. Progress does not occur unless people come back and resume their work day after day. Usually in groups.

We can easily become like the religious authorities Jesus confronts in the Temple. Our imaginations can become limited by our desire to play it safe and avoid taking risks.

Yet, God is out there in the world waiting for us to join-in and to follow through on our good intentions. Can we make a difference? My good intention is to find ways to respond to this cry of the heart erupting from deep within me.  My good intention is to facilitate the members of my community, employing their knowledge and skills, but above all their passions to participate together in building a community that does make a difference. Skinner notes that the transformation of good intentions into actions is not merely a desire to keep ourselves busy and distracted from our real longings.

When we follow through on our responsibilities we discover our heart’s desire. We find those places of encounter with God in the world, and we find out how much God has been waiting for us to make a difference.

 

 

 

[1] http://www.odysseynetworks.org/on-scripture-the-bible/why-work-to-change-the-world/

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Lord, don’t give us this day our just deserts.

The artwork I have been using for some time as the banner picture on my blogsite comes from a set of murals in Coit Tower in San Francisco. On a visit a couple of years back I was taken with the utopian feel, so characteristic of social and political art from the early decades of the 20th century. As Fall has approached I have switched the banner from a busy urban street market scene to that of the countryside where we see a romantic image of the rural idyll at harvest time.

In the world of this picture we see clean and suitably attired men and women contentedly working at gathering-in the harvest. To our eyes it’s quite a gendered picture, yet it presents an image of a community working together in pursuit of the common good.

This picture is a depiction of human hope in a period of hopelessness as the long grinding years of the Great Depression wind towards their conclusion. In the darkest of days this picture captures the desire of our collective imagination. This is a dream of full and constructive employment. Men and women working in jobs that sustain order and provide the protection of livelihood. This is a vision of employment that generates the resources not only to meet the daily needs of individuals and their families, but is capable of generating the wealth a society needs for the preservation of social a sense of the common good.

For me, the murals of Coit Tower represent a very early and mid 20th century dream. I note with some sadness that as the 20th century progressed the dream became tarnished and so it now seems not to be a 21st century dream. This is a dream that becomes imaginable only as a result of the Industrial Revolution with its need for mechanized and organized labor.

The scene that unfolds for us in Matthew 20:1-6 represents the predominant picture of employment prospects prior to the Industrial revolution. For most of history the scene from Matthew is the norm. Men whose only resource is the hiring-out of their bodies in manual labor, gather at the break of each day on the off chance that they might be hired through a process of random selection. Being hired meant food on the table that day, not being hired meant hunger.

However, the parable of the laborers in the vineyard is, sadly, not a situation consigned to history. It’s a scene that is played out daily in our own time in countless Home Depot parking lots throughout cities like Phoenix, Arizona, and in small agricultural towns throughout Southern California and the South West. Here undocumented migrant workers almost exclusively from Central America, wait under the trees in the searing heat,  in the hope that a building contractor or farm foreman will offer a day’s under-the-radar employment.

At the heart of Matthew’s depiction of Jesus’ parable of the workers in the vineyard lies an ancient social tension between justice and love. I mention the plight of undocumented migrant workers only to indicate that in our own time we seem to be no better than our forbears at managing the social tension between justice and love.

Social stability and prosperity requires the exercise of justice. Justice is enshrined for our Western Societies in the concept of the Rule of Law. The Rule of Law sets out, governs, and adjudicates our social relations with one another.

Justice not only governs our external relations, it is also internalized within us in notions of what is fair and equitable. For this reason, we are confronted by the parable of the workers in the vineyard. It actually scandalizes us. We are scandalized by the notion that working all day under the hot sun is worth the same amount of remuneration as working only the last hour before sunset. The parable presents us with a situation we instinctively feel is unfair, unjust, and corrosive of good order in society. This parable presents us with an invitation that is deeply uncomfortable and disconcerting.

Firstly, the parable of the workers in the vineyard invites us to confront the selectivity with which we apply our sense of justice. We do truly, cherish notions of fairness and equity, here presented in the idea of a fair remuneration for a fair days work. Yet, we live in a society where people are not paid fairly or equitably in relation to the amount their labor contributes to the prosperity of an enterprise. We remain blind to the inequities that abound in a society where women routinely earn less than men for the same fair day’s labor. We choose to deny the reality that levels of low pay have an adverse economic effect in a society where the economic engine is dependant on consumer consumption. It seems that most of us content ourselves with limiting the application of our cherished notions of what is fair and what is just to the arenas of our own self interest, and others be dammed.

Secondly, this parable makes us deeply uncomfortable because it presents us with something that makes no sense to us. When faced with the actions of the land owner, I hear in my head the voice of that old tin-can computer in the 1970’s TV program Lost in Space robotendlessly reciting: it does not compute, it does not compute! 

We have journeyed over the summer through Matthew’s narration of the early and middle sections of Jesus’ ministry. Again, and again we have been presented with something that deeply upsets us, namely the reckless generosity of God. It’s bad enough encountering God in the image of a farmer who recklessly scatters the seed at planting. For us, whose thinking is so dominated by notions of economic productivity, the actions of God as the farmer appear as down-right crazy and negligently inefficient. To add insult to injury today we are confronted by the image of God as this landowner who similarly scatters his coin in the same way he scatters his seed. None of this computes in our way of thinking.

In society, and within our own thinking we are engaged in the struggle between justice, on the one hand, and love, on the other. Speaking personally, I don’t like the way the love of God seems to challenge if not obliterate the notions of justice by which I live my life. I don’t like the implications that love trumps just deserts, of love trampling over notions of worthiness and entitlement, proper reward and appropriate punishment. These are notions I hold dear and they support the fantasy that if I live virtuously according to the norms of justice I will be somehow rewarded and protected from the vagaries of chance happenstance. According to this way of thinking misfortune only happens to undeserving people.

The love of God scandalizes the worldview I tenaciously cling to for security. I suspect that the love of God scandalizes all of us. The realization of God as an indiscriminate and reckless lover disturbs our neat ordered little lives. If we allow ourselves to connect with our discomfort, we encounter an invitation to move beyond the way we reconstrict the higher concepts of justice to fit our need for clarity and certainty. Through facing-up to such an invitation we come to see that measured notions of fairness and equity are no substitute for the the generosity of love.

We favor regulated and constricted notions of justice to support us in the illusion that what we have is ours, the fruit of our own toil. We believe in our own virtuous, hard working entitlement. In the image of the generous land owner, God discomforts our secure assumption that we are the hard working laborers who have toiled from dawn to dusk. Do we not seethe with outrage when we see the lazy and the indolent given rewards they have not worked for?

We are disturbed by the reckless generosity of God only if we think we are among the deserving, those who are owed a reward commensurate with our hard work and responsible toil. But, what if our self confident self assertion of our own worthiness means nothing to God? What if it’s you and me that God has us in mind as the needy recipients of his reckless generosity? What then?

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If to Err is Human, So Too is to Forgive

Today’s Gospel reading from Matthew 18:21-35 is the next episode in a complex narrative that involves three separate, yet intertwined storylines. For me it is of paramount importance to keep the storyline thread in mind to avoid an approach to preaching that tends to treat each week’s gospel reading as if it sits in isolation. Seeing a particular reading in isolation from its location within a deeper and interconnected storyline blinds us the larger narrative, which in this instance Matthew is weaving. Faced with a section of disconnected text, we resort to searching for and finding a particular moral meaning.

Isolated reading

If we take Matthew 18:21-35 in isolation we easily draw the moral that it is always necessary to forgive others the hurts they commit against us. We look for the black and white meaning in the story. Jesus’ response to Peter’s question shows us that forgiveness is not quantitative in the sense that it can be limited to a specific number of times – seven or seventy or seventy times seven – there is no limit to our responsibility to forgive. To reinforce his point Jesus then tells the disciples the story about generous forgiveness and its counterpoint, mean spirited refusal to forgive.

Having established the general moral principle, that we are under an obligation to always forgive, we get caught-up in textual analysis of the passage. We ask who is the king, is he Gentile or Jewish? We note he must be Gentile because the size of the debt being forgiven is so large that it can only amount to a huge tax bill owed to the occupying authority. We note that the size of the debt that the unjust steward refuses to forgive is a relatively small one and could be easily written off without any cost to the steward. We can feel our outrage growing against the unjust steward. Instinctively, we all recoil from the use of power to abuse another. We long for such abuse of power to be called to account and punished. Analyzing the parable story leads to a moral sense of satisfaction when the generous King, on the information of his other outraged servants punishes the unjust steward, by re-imposing the debt and imprisoning and torturing him until he pays.

However, this is a problematic conclusion to reach because the image of the King in this parable seems to be an allegory for God. Our image of the King is an allegory for the image of a generous God. God forgives what we can never repay. Yet, it is given a twist when the generous King-God morphs into a vindictive tyrant who capriciously reneges on his promise. This is a very disconcerting turn of events, because it suggests that what is forgiven by God can easily be unforgiven -if we fail to live-up to the self-modeling God shows us.

So we end up with a clear message that God expects us to forgive one another as we are forgiven – forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. If we don’t then the message is, look out!

Frankly, I don’t quite know what to do with this conclusion except to ignore it and go on about my life. If I think about it, which I normally don’t like to do, I notice there are many instances in my relationship with others where I am unwilling to release them from the grievances I harbor against them.

Contextual reading

In the Jesus storyline today’s gospel comes within the context of how the disciples are to behave towards one another. Jesus is not speaking to the crowds now, he is indoors with his disciples talking to them about how they should behave towards one another. This is a teaching about how they are not only to be accountable to  one another- as in, who gets to hold the power, but they are accountable for one another – as in, they have to look-out for one another. In the Matthew storyline, Matthew is weaving Jesus’ teaching into a teaching for his fledgling community. Like Jesus’ teaching of the disciples Matthew’s teaching is for a community that can’t afford to tolerate members harboring grievances against one another. Internal division and bad feeling threaten the survival of a community that is up against it in the world around it.

In both storylines the message is similar- forgive one another or else God will take back God’s forgiveness of you. Both Jesus and Matthew lived in worlds where everyone’s preoccupation was with the life to come, i.e. salvation. This preoccupation reflects a transcendent worldview in which the attention is focused on salvation and the life to come after death. In a transcendent worldview the threat that God will withdraw forgiveness is a very big stick.

By contrast the storyline we live in is one of immanence not transcendence. We live in an immanent worldview where our focus is on the here and now. In our world the reality of death is not looked forward to as entry into something better, it’s feared and denied as the ending of all there is. Our more egalitarian sense of justice recoils against the image of a God as hierarchical judge who has the power to go back on God’s word.

Within our immanent worldview human emotions and feelings are given a level of privilege, inconceivable to people living in a world of transcendence. So we recognize that sometimes we just can’t forgive because we value our feelings of rage and hurt as an authentic response to being hurt. Our psychological approach to the way human emotions work strengthens this trend in us. We all have learned that to deny our feelings only causes trouble down the line. We say things like: I can’t forgive, because I can’t forget.

Our more individualized culture means that we don’t need the same protections provided by being members of a Christian community. If we fall out with one another we just find another community. We have less skin in the game of needing to preserve communal unity. For us forgiveness is not owed only to those inside our community, but to everyone, it seems. Most of us find this an impossible standard to meet.

Reading the text in isolation as a stand-alone moral story leads to the impasse of God’s demand: forgive others, or else! Reading the text within its textual location as well as its divergent storyline contexts leads us to the question of how can God require me to forgive when I can’t forget?

Is forgiving forgetting?

In an age in which we pay careful attention to emotion and the destructive effects of emotional repression, following Jesus teaching on forgiveness challenges us to reflect on the way we cling to memories of past hurts, memories that in effect cherish and keep alive our sense of grievance. To let our cherished grievances go, i.e. to forgive feels like an unreasonable demand.

To forgive in the Greek literally means to send away. When we forgive we send away the feelings the memories of past hurt kept alive as if they happened yesterday. Yet, the difficulty lies in the way our sense of identity has constellated or organized itself around such feelings. Such feelings now create the stories we tell others and ourselves about who we are. To send these feelings away means to place the desire to forgive at the center of intentional living. This is a difficult and painful thing to do!

Let me give a personal example. Most of my life I have harbored a sense of rejection and lack of recognition, which I trace back to my very earliest experience with my parents. I don’t remember this experience, but I know about it because it has shaped a very personal narrative that has helped to explain to myself not only who I am, but also why I am.

For me this early- rooted sense lies not in the world of events. It’s not about what did or did not happen. It’s rooted in a deeper and more complex experience of negotiation between my growing infant-self and my experience of entry into a world that wasn’t ready for me. Although my parents loved me and did the best they could, neither of them was in the fullest sense necessary, were emotionally ready for my arrival in the world.

So much of my life has involved a struggle between this grievance-rooted personal narrative that led me to construct a protective identity as the unrecognized outsider, and my actual experience of life. My actual experience is that I have been, and continue to be significantly recognized and loved by those around me. The struggle is a reflection of the question: when will it be safe enough to send away those early sense memories and the protective identity they support? With the passing of each day I have grown to trust more my experience and to see my perceptions as limiting me in my capacity to live life more abundantly.

One of the saints of our time, the great Desmond TutuTutu comments:

To forgive is not just to be altruistic. It is the best form of self-interest. It is also a process that does not exclude hatred and anger. These emotions are all part of being of being human.

To send away  feelings and memories of grievance is possible once we see that our cherished identity as the victim, or the one who has been irreparably damaged by another’s actions, or disadvantaged by circumstance, does not best serve our self interest.

Archbishop Tutu was one of the principle architects of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission charged with the task of opening up the dark and painful communal and individual experience of the apartheid years in South Africa. At http://theforgivenessproject.com/stories/desmond-tutu-south-africa/ as well as being able to view countless stories of the power of forgiveness to transform lives, we read Archbishop Tutu’s fuller expansion of the process of forgiveness. 

Forgiveness is not forgetting. The feelings of hurt and rage are real and should not be glossed over. Such feelings are natural. Yet, they must be worked through and not turned into something that continues to imprison us in a state of emotionally suspended animation.  Forgiveness is to  send away our sense of self, dictated only by painful memory. Forgiveness opens us to the reframing of our stories into richer narratives that include an enlarged story of who we really are. As we grow into this larger story, one that more accurately reflects the reality of who we really are, we discover a larger experience of the world around us. In an enlarged story of who we are we discover we are more than a victim of another’s trespass upon us. Low and behold, we discover that our power to love is stronger than our fear and our hate. At times this may feel like a two step forward, one step back kind of process as we struggle to realign long-held attachments to memories and the feelings they perpetuate. 

Retelling of the parable

The parable of the unjust steward is told by Jesus, and recorded by Matthew within the storylines shaped by a worldview where the fear of exclusion from God’s gift of grace reflected a popular cultural understanding of reward and punishment. I wonder, how might Jesus retell this parable differently within our own storyline? I rather suspect that a retelling of this parable might stress the discovery of the miracle of God’s love and forgiveness and how this frees us to attend to our own self interest. This discovery gives us greater confidence in our ability to struggle together within communities of the forgiven and the forgiving – communities where we model for one another the courage of forgiving and the humility of being forgiven.

The process of forgiving is not one we accomplish alone. Each day we are sustained to return to the task through seeing many others all around us doing likewise.

As we live in communities shaped by these practices, we will experience anew what it means to be forgiven — and forgiving. Perhaps then, when the invitation is offered, all of us will come to the table joyfully.  Susan Pendelton Jones http://www.religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=593

 

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The ‘Tao’ of Mutual Accountability

Previously in Matthew

Jesus has been exploring his ministry in the context of travelling about the Galilean countryside. He has been preaching, teaching, healing, miracle working, and getting into hot debate. He has experienced grief at the death of John the Baptist, rejection by his family, neighbors, and the religious authorities. He seems to have had an ah-ha moment on a journey into the neighboring territory of the Phoenicians, where confronted by the demand for healing from a woman of all people, a woman who would not take no for an answer, he grows into an expanded understanding of his ministry. From this point on Jesus’ ministry is no longer only to the lost sheep of the House of Israel, but to everyone, regardless of race, and we might add gender, class and sexual orientation.

We get a real sense of how Matthew is constructing his Jesus-storyline through this particular sequencing events:

  • Jesus’ ministry in Galilee culminates with the feeding of the 5000. 5000 along with the number 12 have particularly Jewish significance. Matthew is telling us that the miracle of the feeding of the 5000 is a Jewish meal.
  • Jesus then journeys into the borderland, by way of walking across the Sea of Galilee in the midst of a storm. On arrival in the region of Tyre and Sidon he is confronted by a foreigner, not just a foreigner but a woman to boot. From this encounter he seems to grow in his self-understanding of God’s purpose for him.
  • Upon his return to Jewish territory Jesus performs a second feeding miracle, the feeding of the 4000. For Matthew this is not a repeat of the earlier story. This is Matthew constructing a new event where the numerical signifiers 4, and 7 indicate that the feeding of the 400o is a Gentile meal.

It’s in the borderland that Jesus discovers the missing piece to his identity. The borderland is a place that is beyond his familiar, Jewish environment. There seems to be a message here for us!

We are at the mid point in Matthew’s narration of Jesus’ ministry. From now-on Jesus’ attention is directed towards Jerusalem. The road to Jerusalem is the road that he now takes and it’s the road to Jerusalem that we are to accompany him on, as we journey from summer to autumn. Accompanying Jesus on the road to Jerusalem is a journey of discovery. Along this road we will discover what it means for us to be his disciples.

Last week I noted Matthew Skinner’s comment, and it bears repeating that:

As we journey soon into the new beginnings of post-Labor Day autumn, what will it mean to deny ourselves, take up our crosses, and follow Jesus? More, certainly, than giving up a few things; more than suffering as part of the human condition; more than moving forward on new paths—peering into autumn’s transitions, we belong to one another.  

Today’s episode in Matthew

In Matthew chapter 18, Jesus addresses how his disciples are to behave towards one another as they begin to travel with him on the road to Jerusalem. One might imagine that his comments are particularly addressed to the process by which the disciples will negotiate differences and conflict between them.

If Skinner’s assertion that we belong to one another is to have any meaning then we have to understand Jesus’ teaching on our responsibility for one another, and our individual accountability for one another, especially around issues of difference and potential conflict.

In a culture where Episcopalians have come to treat membership of the Church as another version of our membership of any number of voluntary and nonprofit organizations, the idea that we are responsible for, and accountable to, one another rings alarm bells. No one is going to tell me what to do, we mutter to ourselves and, if I find I don’t like it, then I will just leave, has become our solution of choice when faced with the inevitability of conflict in our social worlds.

I love Rick Morley’s tongue in cheek characterization of so much of our behavior in Christian community in a blog entitled, Before you un-friend [1]:

If another member of the church sins against you…just talk about them behind their back. If another member of the church sins against you…just call a bunch of people in the church to complain about them. You may even want to start a letter-writing campaign against them. If another member of the church sins against you…just send them a nasty email. Copy the clergy. And, while you’re at it, CC the bishop. If another member of the church sins against you…don’t say anything. Just avoid them. Un-friend them on Facebook. And, if you can’t avoid them on Sundays, then just leave the church

Matthew 18: 15-20 has become engrained in our collective unconscious as the epitome of the abusive and oppressive way religious communities treat people. These verses have been used to justify the abuse in religious communities of shunning, which is invariably a form of officially sanctioned scapegoating.

We need have no fear of this happening to us within the Episcopal Church, because most of us don’t give that level of priority to our Church membership. That we might be accountable to one another makes us shudder. This is our collective unconscious fear coming out, a fear from a time when inclusion and exclusion from community carried implications of life or death. Our collective dread is further compounded in our individual experience because ostracism is one of the most painfully reoccurring personal experiences of growing up.

For not to

We don’t particularly care for the experience of being accountable to another person, or group of persons, especially if they seem to be just like us, with no more nor less claim to authority than we possess. We read Matthew within a frame colored by our experience of school days. For most of us being accountable to another leads to a step-by-step process of ratcheting up the pressure that groups use to ensure conformity. Firstly one person confronts you. Then if that does not go so well, and it invariably doesn’t, they come back with an ally. When that doesn’t achieve the desired result a gang of persons, and eventually the whole group or community then ostracizes or expels you, that is, if you haven’t jumped ship, first.

Yet, what happens if we read Matthew within a new frame created by substituting the word to with the word for? In this frame we are no longer accountable to, but become accountable for one another. The image of Jesus communicated to us through the Gospels is never one of him resorting to hierarchical authority. Even in Matthew, who presents us with the most Moses-like image of Jesus, Jesus is presented as having authority, not as being authoritarian. Reading these verses against this larger experience of Jesus leads me to suggest that Jesus is asking his disciples to be responsible for  one another and not to one another. Matthew opens chapter 18 with Jesus talking about the adult abuse of children. The implication follows that if we are not to abuse children then it makes no sense for us to use power as the instrument for abuse of one another.

I take Jesus to mean that within our community life we are to be accountable for one another. This means looking out for one another. Sometimes, looking out for one another involves addressing behaviors that are harmful to relationships between individuals. Sometimes, looking out for one another makes it necessary to challenge one another when if left unchallenged, our behavior endangers the stability of the whole community.

Journeying togetherimages-2

In The Essential Ingredient, David Lose commenting on Matthew 18:15-20 asks:[2]

So what kind of community do we want from our congregation — largely social, somewhat superficial (which is, of course, safe)? Do we want something more meaningful or intimate (which is riskier and harder)? Do we want a place that can both encourage us and hold us accountable? Are we looking for a place we can be honest about our hopes and fears, dreams and anxieties? Do we want somewhere we can just blend in or are we looking for a place we can really make a difference? 

Sunday September 7th is Homecoming Sunday at St Martin’s in Providence. Unlike anywhere else I’ve been, there is a sheer literality to Homecoming Sunday in the life of Rhode Island Churches, where the custom for many is to make good use of summer weekends for trips to the sea and elsewhere because as all Yankees know- winter is coming! So this is an appropriate time to pose the questions Lose frames above. As we journey together into the mists and mellow fruitfulness of the Fall, what kind of community are we on the way to becoming?

I would like us to be always in the process of becoming a community where relationship rests on a mature capacity to negotiate our differences face-to-face. For me conflict is inevitable in any healthy Christian community. By healthy, I mean a community where people engage with their passion in the task of worshiping together, loving each other and serving the world. Where passions are engaged strong feeling is always in play. I don’t fear strong feeling. My fear is to be part of a community of lukewarm feeling, where difference can be avoided because ultimately, nothing is important enough to fall-out over. Where the personal cost of leaving the community is so inconsequential because if we don’t like St Martin’s there’s always somewhere else to go; though evidence shows that when Episcopalians stop going to one church, we stop going to any church. 

Where two or three agree to gather

Our Gospel pericope (section of verses) ends with Jesus’ enigmatically speaking about agreement and gathering together in his name. Given that this comes at the end of a teaching on mutual accountability, agreement must refer to some form of common accord.

Does this mean that we have to agree with one another before we can gather in his name? Does agreement envision eradication of difference?  Because most Christian traditions stress theological agreement does gather together mean the fruit of theological agreement about what’s true and what is false? My answer to each of these questions is a resounding no!

Shared agreement is not available to Episcopalians. We can be likened to the Jews of the Christian world because the only thing we can agree on is that we don’t agree about much. What this actually means is not that anything goes, but that we are a communion, which is a word that signifies relationship rather than structure. We recognize that the world can be viewed through several difference lenses. We acknowledge that there are broadly speaking, several worldviews possible. We see no reason to pretend that these differences of worldview will not be reflected in our communities. It’s not shared truth, but common worship that holds us together. It’s within a communion of relationships we become accountable, i.e. lookout for one another.

Because of this, and in this way I believe we are able echo Matthew Skinner’s words:images-1

peering into autumn’s transitions, we [find that we] belong to one another

[1] http://www.rickmorley.com/

[2] http://www.davidlose.net/

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