A reflection by Rev. Dr. Thom Bower
For October 8 2017, the 27th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Based on Matthew 21:33-46
We’re in a section of Matthew of Jesus teaching with parables. These stories have a simple plot, but the characters and their actions are often confusing. The result are stories that give us riddles. What at first seemed to be a simple story has a twist that makes us think, a surprise that makes us wonder.
This morning’s parable comes from Matthew 21. It’s difficult to say what this parable is about: revenge, divine judgment, receiving Christ as God’s son. The concluding words of Jesus could be frightening. Listen trying to answer this question: what is this parable calling Lyonsville to do?
We have been told often it is impolite to discuss politics, money or religion in polite company. To anyone who says that, I say they have not read the bible very well. Today’s exhibit A: a parable of Jesus. We treat it as another harmless episode of Story Time with Jesus. For generations we have overlooked the political, the economic, and the religious issues that Jesus was talking about.
About 60 years before Jesus was born, Rome colonized the region of Judea. Yes, Romans had been present in the area before that, but it is at that time that Judea becomes a province of the Roman Empire. Sixty years is not a long time in a culture.
Sixty years ago in US history,
- Dwight Eisenhower began his second term as President,
- Elvis Presley purchases Graceland,
- the Edsel was released,
- the novel Atlas Shrugged is published,
- Shippingport Station, the world’s first atomic electric-power plant, opened
- in Arkansas the Little Rock Nine are prevented by the national guard from enrolling in high school,
- and the United Church of Christ is formed from the merger of the Congregational Christian Church and the Evangelical and Reformed Church.
A lot of cultural shift can happen in sixty years.
In the province of Judea, one of the major shifts was in the business of farming. The local Judeans owned small family farms. These were usually passed down from generation to generation, so literally the ancestral lands. As the Romans moved into a new colonial area, they would make befriend with local residents. In the guise of companionship, Romans would make loans to the local landowners and farmers to help them improve the farmlands – maybe dig a well or build an aqueduct, put in a new granary or olive press. The Romans would even buy the crops from these lands – essentially buying the product of their debtors so the debt could be repaid.
All that time they were gauging the wealth of the landowners, waiting for the farmers to have a bad year. In farming, there is always going to be a bad time: it’s estimated that in the time of Jesus farms laid fallow one year in seven. Then these wealthy Romans would move in to collect their debt. “I’m so very sorry this is a bad year for you, but it’s time to make the payments on what you owe. If you don’t have the cash, then why don’t you give me part of the land.” Part of the land quickly became the whole farm.
And then as if to rub salt into the wound, they make another offer. “Since you no longer own any land, will you let me hire you to work my new farm – the farm I just bought from you, the farm you have known so well, the farm your ancestors worked but which I now own? Would you like to work this farm for me?” Within one growing season, families went from owning ancestral farmland to becoming tenet farmers.
That would have been the familiar story of this morning’s parable, as familiar as another mass shooting with an automatic weapon, as familiar as Donald Trump threatening to use nuclear weapons, as familiar as revealing sexual misconduct in a US industry, as familiar as the weather channel describing a natural disaster. This week it is Las Vegas, threats to annihilate North Korea, film producer Harvey Weinstein, and Hurricane Nate. If Jesus were writing stories today, these would be the topics of his parables.
We’ve forgotten the history, the politics, the economics that generated the original Story Time with Jesus. And once those historic political & economic realities are known, the tone of the parable changes as does our responsibility, our calling, our religious responsibility to talk about and respond to the politics and economics of our day simply because Jesus talked about them in his day.
Stewardship campaigns typically focus on the finances of a congregation. That’s important. Madonna had it right when she sang “We are living in a material world.” Like any organization, congregations have financial obligations, so we need to attend to budgets and financial plans. It’s important to be able to project anticipated income and expenses for the upcoming year.
The second direction of most stewardship campaigns is our time and talent. The church is a voluntary organization. We join congregations to do the work of the church. Yes, it is also a social organization – but a local congregation is more like the National Guard than it is like a country club. Unlike the National Guard, we don’t have ways to penalize you when you don’t show up for duty. So instead, the church puts great effort into making you feel good about the time you volunteer in acts of service, while theologically we continue to promote a sense of vocational calling: being a follower of Christ compels us to acts of compassion, mercy, and justice. Those are inseparable: our identity in Christ is an identity of service.
That service takes place within specific times and places, specific circumstances driven by unfair politics and distorted economics. If we are not going to talk about those forces, then we are not going to be able to effectively address the effects of those forces, and that means we will not be effective in the ways we try to serve those who are suffering because of those forces. Volunteering at The Chicago Food Depository and Feed My Starving Children are good works but we also need to be examining why there is hunger, why some parts of the world and some neighborhoods encounter food deficiencies more prominently than other parts of the world and other neighborhoods.
The conference I was at earlier this week a 33-year old pastor – an attendee, not a key note speaker –was asked why her generation does not come to church. “Most congregations talk about being nice to one another, and then talk about one another behind each other’s backs. We look for elders in the congregation who are supposed to be examples of faith and wisdom, and instead they are acting like middle schoolers. You talk about God loving the world and doing good in the world, but then you refuse to talk about the politics that hurt people – political decisions that last generations. My generation can find people who are nice to us on social media and don’t talk about us behind our back, and without the church we are still able to find meaningful ways to change the world – and when we show up at those places, we mostly do not see the church represented. Until the church begins to really work at loving one another, and until the church becomes political, it will not be meaningful for my generation.”
Let me reiterate: this is not a flippant teenager, but a third-generation pastor in the UCC, someone deeply committed to the church. And if a pastor who is serving a congregation feels that way about the church, then consider how other 30 year-olds who do not have to come to church feel about the church.
This is a tough parable. It issues a tough challenge to be politically, economically, religiously responsible – for God is at work in all those aspects of human history. We need to meet God in that work.
It has been another week of devastating news, Lord.
Once again we are reminded of the deadliness of guns,
of inadequate protections against firearms,
of the looming threat of nuclear weapons,
of the effects of natural disasters and
ineffective emergency responses,
of our inhumanity to one another because
the beautiful differences you have made part of us are distorted by power.
Come Holy spirit, fill us with wisdom to live to your original intent.
Do more than nudge us to the good act; push us to righteousness and justice.
Force us to confront the ways we have neglected our responsibility as your people to sustain relationships that protect the dignity of all people.
Force us to accept responsibility for our personal relationships, our government, our society, so that every human interaction may demonstrate your grace.
While the headline news tells us of events around the world, we are deeply touched by more personal events.
We celebrate birthdays and anniversaries, mark the days since loved ones died, plan for weddings and graduations to come.
Lord, in your mercy, may healing flow from this sanctuary to the wide network of people touched by the folk of Lyonsville. We especially pray for those dealing with cancer, dementia and mental health, who grieve and mourn, for whom everyday life means aches in body, pain in mind, and distress in spirit.
We realize there may not be cures to end these illnesses,
but we trust in your healing power to offer something more meaningful.
As Lyonsville again examines it’s call to faithful stewardship,
may we hear your call to us to be your disciples.
Good and generous God, money is a resource you provide.
May Lyonsville be blessed by its presence to share your grace.
May we also acknowledge money is not the only resource this congregation has for being faithful:
may each member feel you hand guiding them to joyful service to act compassionately, mercifully, and with justice.
May Lyonsville become a place where the complexities of social justice are engaged in your name,
so that the atrocities of injustice may be eliminated through your grace.
As the pastoral search team continues their work,
may your presence teach new ways of being the church which help Lyonsville grow in faith and strength.
As the leadership council continues their work,
may you guide them to visions of faith to seek your wisdom and justice.
As each of us journeys through the week,
may we see evidence of you blessing upon our lives, so that we may be a blessing to others.
In the name of Christ, though whom we are blessed, amen.