Monday, September 29, 2008

We Are They

Matthew 21:33-46

The wicked tenants invoke no sympathy from me. It is easy to see their evil intent, their possessiveness of property that is not their own. Then they "Kill the Messenger" (thanks Jack's Mannequin) first abusing the slaves and then killing the son. Certainly these tenants deserve no pity. In fact, I almost wait for the owner with anticipation that they will 'get what's coming to them.' Until I realize I am they. (thanks Clergy Journal for this thread)

Yes, in spite of my self-righteous judgment of their abusive actions, I have to realize my own greedy nature does the same thing. I consider this earth my own, "my" property and I should be able to do what I want on it. At least on "my" three acres. Yet when I decide to be a caretaker of creation, I want everyone to join in. Such contradiction. I can be shortsighted enough to forget that I am always a caretaker, a steward of God's world. I am just passing through, here today and gone tomorrow. My legacy only extends to what I leave for the next generation.

I am a tenant. I hope to be a better caretaker, to watch for God's messengers and welcome them. To turn over the profits of my labor for the owner's use and the leave the vineyard well cared-for in order that the next generation of stewards may work diligently.

Now, to keep that perspective for more than a minute..

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Your Comfort and Mine

How uncomfortable am I willing to be to make you more comfortable? Paul writes in Romans and Corinthians about the importance of putting others first. "We do not live to ourselves." (Romans 14:7) If I am to live 'to you' then I must not only accept your ways, (religious customs and law ) I must modify my actions if they disturb you to the point of impacting your faith walk. What does that mean in daily life?

A few years ago, I attended my first Love Feast with a congregation where I was new. I entered the room which was set up for the meal early while the (mostly) women were completing preparations. Love Feast consists of a time of confession, a meal of simple food, feetwashing, and communion. I had never worn a prayer covering. I read the Corinthians texts related to coverings to indicate they show a man's authority over the woman. As a pastor, it seemed incongruous to wear a prayer covering and hold a leadership role or  'authority' in the church. Yet I knew that one day, I might be challenged by women for whom the covering holds much deeper symbolic meaning of piety and faithfulness. This was the night of challenge and it came as a simple gracious offering of a prayer covering.  

I believe it was offered in hospitality that the new person, arriving without a covering, might feel at home and be loaned one to wear. I knew my reply might challenge this sister's faith and understanding of tradition. When she offered me a cover, I declined saying, "I choose not to wear a covering, but if it offends you for me not to be covered, then I will be happy to wear one." The sister let me wait what seemed like an hour while she gave it serious thought. Someone interrupted her thinking and asked, "Well, does it bother you if Nancy doesn't wear a prayer covering?" Finally, she said, "No, actually, I've been at other Love Feasts where women didn't wear the covering. I guess I'm fine with you not wearing one." Whew, what relief. (I can still feel the sweat on my neck.) I thanked her and we went off to the sanctuary together, she with head covered and me uncovered to pray and be reconciled to God.

That day I made the right decision and was met with openness for a different way of being. I have not always managed the right response, nor been greeted so graciously. And someday, I'll be challenged on this or a similar point and then, what then? Who will be the one "weak in faith?" and Who will be living to Christ?

Friday, September 5, 2008

Critical Mass

I went to my first Washington Nationals baseball game last week and expected to walk out into that glorious feeling of a stadium crowd anticipating the words, "Play Ball!" Instead, I found a sparse crowd, open holes in the seating with plenty of comfortable spots available. (And they ended up winning that night!) Every preacher knows the feeling of looking out on the congregation from the chancel on a holiday weekend and seeing far too many empty pews. Such a view can dash one's spirits and impact the delivery of a well-crafted sermon.

Why is it that we are so effected by numbers? In youth gatherings we try to reach "critical mass" that number of teens that makes games fun or even possible and lends a feeling of being part of a group. Humans judge success by quantity. From the estimated crowd size at a D.C. protest march to the number of popped kernels in a bag of microwave popcorn, we look for quantity to determine value. Sunday's gospel text in Matthew points us to a different set of integers; 2 and 3.
"19Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. 20For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” (Mt 18:19-20)
Initially it appears that Jesus is valuing the few, even the single individual who joins with another in reconciliation. It's true that each one of us is important and of great value. We know the shepherd leaves the 99 to go after the 1. Yet there is even more to this passage than the value of the individual. Matthew 18 is about reconciliation, a key activity which is commanded for Jesus' disciples. The two coming together in agreement may be two having experienced broken relationship or severe disagreement. When they come together to address the issue between them they are building a relationship. However awkward, difficult, and uncomfortable it is, it is relationship. The power of honest discussion may be all it takes to overcome conflict. There is no substitute for going and speaking to the person with whom you disagree or who has injured you. Matthew assures us that when we approach our adversary, Christ is there with us.

Why is it so important for two to reconcile? With all the people in the world, would it not be easier to 'get over it,' make a new friend and just leave the difficult relationship behind? But for Christians, community is of greatest value and restoring that community through reconciling work may be our highest calling. We are called to community. Mathew 18 gives a whole process for reconciliation in a community and what to do when disagreement is so strong it retains the brokenness. It begins with just two.

There is a natural desire to judge the health of community by its number, as long as we don't take it too far and make it our only criteria. More importantly we should remember that the health of community is based on relationship, beginning with the smallest quantity; the relationship between you and me. When we come together, Christ is there with us. It's an awesome promise and awesome responsibility.