Monday, November 21, 2011

Yearning for Unity

Scripture for the Last Sunday after Pentecost, Christ the King Sunday, includes Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24; Ephesians 1:15-23; and Matthew 25:31-46

The most divided house in America, the United States Congress, was considering last week whether to approve a spending bill that will prevent a government shutdown. Buried in that thick document is one line that defines pizza as a vegetable. You know I’m not making this up. You know this not because of anything you know about me, but because of what we all know can happen in Congress.

The bill’s language would confirm current government policy, which is that two tablespoons of tomato paste spread on a slice of pizza constitutes one vegetable serving. The Department of Agriculture, pushing healthier food for children, has sought a stricter provision, that food must contain half a cup of tomato paste to qualify as a vegetable serving. A spokesman for the American Frozen Food Institute says that this would make it impossible for schools to serve pizza.

The director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, has offered her opinion that pizza ought to be served in school cafeterias with a vegetable, not count as one.

Jon Stewart had his way with this imbroglio: At a time when a congressional super-committee is supposed to be agreeing on spending cuts to the tune of a trillion dollars or more, what our divided government may be able to agree upon is… that pizza is a vegetable.

From another divisive setting, we heard this week that Morgan Management is suing the Town of Williamstown and the State Attorney General’s Office, asking the court to declare that the damage done by Tropical Storm Irene was an act of God.

Of these two astonishing developments, this one stuns me more.

If Irene was an act of God, goes the legal argument by the owners of The Spruces mobile home park, then an act of God has caused the mobile home park to cease. I’m not making that up, either. If the park has ceased, then Massachusetts law —which is extremely clear about the obligations of mobile home parks, inconveniently clear for Morgan Management-- Massachusetts law would no longer apply, and Morgan would be free to walk away from Williamstown with no further responsibilities to its tenants.

And one more painfully divisive experience was felt last week, this in the campus community to which we belong by more than neighborly affinity. Words of racial hatred were scrawled on a wall inside a Williams dormitory last weekend, generating a crisis which, thanks to bold initiatives and wise judgment by students and administration, has become the opportunity for truth-telling. Such incidents have happened before, and may happen again. But what may be unique about this one is that the moment was seized, classes cancelled, and 1500 campus members sat on Chapin lawn, allowing the truth-telling to sink deeper than usual, perhaps deeper than ever, and deep is where it must go to reach those depths where bias and learned hatred linger. A gentle drizzle anointed the crowd near the end of that historic gathering, as if heaven were trying to cleanse us all.

See how many instances of divisiveness can be found in our human community, constantly impinging on our daily life. We yearn for unity, long for what breaks down walls that separate us so we may find what binds us all together in perfect freedom and mutual responsibility. We’re hungry for the antidote to paralyzed government, social segregation, and poisonous words.

And along comes today’s Gospel, the summation of Matthew’s teaching about the return of Jesus Christ in glory to set right a world gone wrong. In recent weeks, he has reported several relevant parables of Jesus—wise and foolish bridesmaids whose one task is to be ready when the bridegroom comes, estate managers entrusted with the master’s wealth investing it well or poorly—and now he is done with parables that tease our minds, and instead spreads out before us an apocalyptic vision unlike any in the other Gospels. But, like the parables, this astonishing mural of the end divides people, sheep from goats, some rising to eternal reward, others being cast into the outer gulags of perdition.

Slim pickings for us who yearn for unity. What’s going on in all this division?

For one thing, the first-century church was pulled in two directions by the question, Where is Jesus? One answer is that he has ascended to heaven, and from there will come again to judge the living and the dead. This is the answer given by the gospel-writer Luke at the end of his Gospel. But there is no ascension in Matthew’s Gospel; rather, his closing scene has the eleven disciples gathered around Jesus on a mountaintop, where he tells them, “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” Jesus is here with us.

But as we see in today’s portion, Matthew crosses the aisle and agrees that there will be a day when Jesus returns to decisively complete his victory over the realm of evil. As year gave way to year and decade to decade, Matthew’s church yearned for something more than the quiet hiddenness of Jesus’s promised presence (had that come to feel like slim pickings?). Surely Christ’s definitive triumphant return would come in a way seen by all, and surely it would happen soon.

Matthew speaks of Jesus Christ as King, sitting on a glorious throne, from which he will admit the righteous to the kingdom of God, the reign of perfect justice they’d long prayed daily would come on earth as in heaven. Perfect justice, of course, is a very sharp sword; and what it will cut away is the demonic this-worldly tyranny of Jesus’s opponents, the counter-kingdom opposed to God’s reign. Listen to my favorite Methodist commentator, Eugene Boring:

“The two kingdoms that are confused and interwoven in the ambiguities of history now stand disclosed at the end of history. There are only these two kingdoms: the Son of Man with his angels and all the blessed righteous, and the kingdom of God prepared from eternity stand on one side; the devil and his angels, the accursed, and the destiny prepared for the devil and his own stand on the other. The kingdom of God is disclosed as the only true kingdom… ultimately only God is King.”

So welcome to Christ the King Sunday, the nickname of this last Sunday in the long season of Pentecost when it seems the Church has no more imagination than to keep numbering its Sundays after Pentecost—this year 23 of them—but oh yes, we must imagine.

Shaped by the realities of his time, Matthew imagined this cataclysmic end of history that would soon close the curtain on a culture of violence and greed, and throw open the long-veiled reign of God’s justice.

Two thousand years later, we can imagine cataclysmic endings, the human race having invented several ways to end life as we know it, one by nuclear technology harnessed to the cause of war, and one by toxic excess in the name of greed. We need to imagine God’s setting-right of a world gone wrong, and it isn’t hard to imagine that in order to unite the human race there must be divided from human community the counter-forces of racial hatred, violence, and greed.

But don’t give up on the pressing need to imagine a dénouement that frees people to find unity, rather than a judgment day that perpetuates division? How does Matthew’s vision of setting the world right help us 21st-century believers? There are three ways.

First, he reminds us that Jesus Christ is the basis for any setting-right that you and I are called to do. We hear that in all the titles of honor given him: Son of Man, Shepherd, Lord, King. And if we are to represent him faithfully in a world where people of other religions—and people of no religion—have different bases for the reconciling work they are called to do, we must remember and practice the basics: to treat others as we wish them to treat us, to be merciful peacemakers with pure hearts, and to act less as teachers and more as learners. All these are Jesus-traits that Matthew urges us to value and imitate, because Jesus Christ is the basis for the reconciling work we have to do.

Second, Matthew says something more astonishing than anything we have heard recently, and again I’ll let my Methodist commentator say it: In Matthew’s apocalyptic vision, God’s “criterion of judgment is not confession of faith in Christ. Nothing is said of grace, justification, or the forgiveness of sins. What counts is whether one has acted with loving care for needy people. Such deeds are not a matter of ‘extra credit,’ but constitute the decisive criterion of judgment… the ‘weightier matters of the Law.’” To say that Christ is King is to say that his ethics rule.

Third, Matthew makes his whole end-time vision depend on his deep belief that between first and second public appearances, Jesus Christ has never left us. The righteous have no idea that they have fed, welcomed, clothed, and visited him—but we must catch the point that he has been there all along, embedded in these least of our brothers and sisters, his brothers and sisters. Or is it more accurate to say that he is alive in the force-field of loving care between the righteous and the least; and he was there in the void between the self-absorbed and the least. One could even say, true to Matthew’s words, that Jesus Christ has been detained indefinitely among the poor and excluded, willingly and strategically imprisoned with the most vulnerable until the time comes for heaven to set things right on earth.

Isn’t it intriguing, this not-knowing, not-recognizing that shrouds Christ in anonymity? And this strange agnosticism is true equally for the righteous and for the self-absorbed and unresponsive. The first do not know what they have done, and the second have no clue what they have failed to do, until he comes again in public display, disclosing the hearts of all. And, until then, doesn’t that suggest the vocation of the Church, to hold him up so clearly that hearts do open?

We really must imagine what it will take to make right this world gone wrong. Here today, Matthew tells us. He seems to long for division of the human race, and this could cause us not to listen. But if we are to play our part and do what we can, what we must, to help people find their unity with one another and with God, we need Matthew’s wisdom.

And, in a nutshell, it is this: Jesus Christ is our basis for action. Action is required. Self-giving love is that action, and Jesus Christ is right there, in the giving and the receiving.

(M. Eugene Boring’s commentary on Matthew in volume 8 of “The New Interpreter’s Bible” was useful in the preparation of this sermon.)

Investing Well

Scripture for the 22nd Sunday after Pentecost includes Judges 4:1-7; I Thessalonians 5:1-11; Matthew 25:14-30

I realize that our collect says that all holy scripture has been written for our learning, but I have no idea what to do with that portion of the Book of Judges. It introduces us to Deborah, a prophetess who functioned as one of the great judges of ancient Israel. I’d thought at first that this passage might be setting us up for a series of readings about her, but not so. It’s a one-off reading that must have depths I haven’t plumbed and applications I haven’t imagined, but darned if I know where to go with it.

Our psalm, however, has a certain currency to it. “…for we have had more than enough of contempt, Too much of the scorn of the indolent rich, and of the derision of the proud.” That sounds as if it comes straight from the Occupy Wall Street movement. I’d judge the popularity rating of that sharp-edged verse at about 99%...maybe 100.

It’s an interesting companion piece to Matthew’s parable of the talents. On the face of it, there’s something cold and steely about this parable, enough to make me wish I could avoid dealing with it. But I’ve struck out on Judges and haven’t found St. Paul’s words to the Thessalonians ringing my bells, so let’s see what we find in this parable.

Rather than re-trace it from the get-go, let’s visit the bottom line. Three estate managers have been handed portions of a wealthy man’s property, to invest and trade upon while he takes the grand tour. He has judged how much to entrust to each, based on their working history. I presume that the one surprise this keen capitalist had on his return was to discover that the fellow he trusted least, the manager from whose skills he expected least, under-performed even the low water mark of their working history.

The Bible commentator tells us that a talent is a large sum of money. Do you have a calculator on your smart phone? Take the wages of a day laborer (let’s say it’s minimum wage, $7.25 an hour, so multiply that by eight hours: $58.00) then multiply that by fifteen years of daily labor (a Jew would not work on the Sabbath, so let’s say six days a week would yield $348.00, multiply that by 52 weeks and we have $18,096, multiply that by 15 and behold, a talent on our terms might be in the neighborhood of $271,440.00. That’s serious money.

I’ve got to say that this story reminds me of our last Finance Committee meeting here in the parish. We have a very sharp committee, and they’ve wisely diversified, placing the management of the parish’s longterm assets in several sets of hands. And there’s one that keeps underperforming. Though I can easily picture us indulging in some judgmental language, I’m not sure we’d go so far as to call that manager wicked and lazy, and I’m positive that, even if the committee decides to remove parish assets from his stewarding, they won’t expect to throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

So what’s with the intensity of the master? Where does all this feeling come from?

From the start, don’t we know that this parable is going to speak about something beyond its literal terms, that while the story is cast in the language of estate management, it’s really about something more, much more. Jesus tips his hand right at the outset, “The kingdom of heaven will be like this…” he says.

And isn’t it intriguing that the word “talent” should carry more than its weight in gold? The commentator tells us that this double meaning wasn’t there in the first century— that stands to reason, since the coincidence occurs in English, not in Hebrew or Aramaic or Greek. As a result of the wide circulation of this story, the word “talent” came into the English language in the Middle Ages as a term meaning God-given abilities, gifts, graces. In the first century, the talents in this story were money on the barrelhead.

But that doesn’t mean that money, wealth, investment, stewardship in this parable represent financial or commercial property. A parable is always an earthly story with a heavenly meaning; or, as the great Bible scholar C. H. Dodd puts it,

“At its simplest, the parable is a metaphor or simile drawn from nature or common life, arresting the hearer by its vividness or strangeness, and leaving the mind in sufficient doubt about its precise application to tease it into active thought.” (C. H. Dodd, The Parables of the Kingdom)

Any Bible scholar would urge us to notice the context in which the Gospel-writer, Matthew in this case, locates the parable. We’re right on the heels of last Sunday’s parable of the ten bridesmaids, which we saw addressing not so much wedding customs as the second coming of Jesus Christ in glory to set right a world gone wrong.

That’s the immediate neighborhood of today’s parable, and it is where it is because Matthew wants his hearers to wrestle with a hard question: In the between-time after our Lord’s first coming and before his return, what ought good and faithful believers be doing with their lives?

A divided first-century church, under pressure of persecution by Roman imperial forces, may have made several answers to Matthew. Some thought what mattered was being theologically correct and pure in that waiting time, keeping your hands clean and your eyes on the prize. Some may have had little idea how to wait for God’s final act on the world stage except to be passive and cautiously watch what happened, but disengaged and in a place of hiding. And some were positive that faithfulness meant strict obedience to the clear instructions of the law and the prophets, following the old rules regardless of all the flux and flow of severe change all around. But there’s yet one other answer that some Christians would make.

Before going there, let’s be sure we’ve been adequately teased. What is that enormous wealth which the master has entrusted to us stewards?

It isn’t money. Remember what can happen to IRAs and endowments, and recognize that this wealth that Jesus bestows upon us is not fragile or fickle or flimsy: it has an eternal weight of glory about it, it is kept in the heart and not in the bank, it grows not by hoarding it but by giving it, putting it to use. We have been given the contents of the vaults of heaven, the love that will not let us go, the hope of eternal life, wisdom that teaches us to sing in harmony with God, unlimited partnership with God in the new creation. We’ve been given certainty and confidence in our place at the table of perfect community. Sacraments, scriptures, prayer, mission, passion, eternity.

What are we to do with this wealth as we await the return of Christ in glory? The one other remaining answer made by many in that first century world was to exercise responsibility, take initiative, run risk that would help God establish the priority of Jesus’s love, Jesus’s values, Jesus’s radical and iconoclastic egalitarianism right here and now on earth as in heaven. Such is what this parable shows two of three stewards doing, and being affirmed for doing, while one is reamed-out for what he has allowed fear and anxiety to do to him, to his freedom and his integrity. Each manager has been free to decide how to use the gift of time and opportunity during the master’s absence, how to live in his stead, by his vision; and yet just two of these three have claimed that freedom and made decisions. The third has dug a hole, a grave, and tried to bury in it the way, the truth, and the life.

But he has apparently never accepted these powers, these gifts, as his. Hear how he blames the master for his own problem of fear. He hasn’t discovered the inner nature of gift and opportunity that animates the new life of grace: “Here you have what is yours,” he grumbles, unaware of what is his own.

We could still ask, why the intensity, the deep feeling that the master expresses, banishing this third steward to outer darkness. And a responsible handling of the Word of God most likely requires us to test the spirit of such rejection and exclusion. Is this the spirit of the kingdom of God? Or might it be the partisan spirit that a divided society can display when leaders don’t lead, the anger that surfaces when some try so hard and others walk away from their responsibilities?

Have we been teased enough by this parable? Enough to see a symbolic case study in the creation not of financial capital, but of social and spiritual capital? Teased enough to ask ourselves what we are generating for God, for the world, for the kingdom of Christ, from the vast wealth that has been entrusted to us?

(M. Eugene Boring’s commentary on Matthew in “The New Interpreter’s Bible”, volume 8, was helpful in preparing this sermon.)