October 1, 2017
Matthew 21:23-32, Exodus 17:1-7
“Actions Speak Louder”
When we hear a scripture that confounds us, it is often a good idea to read what comes before and what comes after it. Context is everything. This strange story is preceded by Jesus entering Jerusalem on a donkey and going to the temple where he overturned the tables of the money changers, and then cursing a fig tree until it withered. It makes sense that this country rabbi would arouse suspicion in the respected religious authorities with his radical behavior. They want to know who Jesus thinks he is. Rather than answering their question, he asks them a question and then follows with a story of a man who asks his two sons to work on the family farm. One says he will do it, but doesn’t. The other says he won’t and then he goes and works. Jesus wants to know which one is the example to follow. The answer is easy, the one who acted despite his words.
For several weeks, Jesus has been holding a mirror to his followers and to us in this series of readings. Today we confront that part of us that wants to do the right thing and thinks we are doing the right thing, but sometimes we just miss it. Jesus isn’t interested in what we think as much as he cares about what we do.
We know about good intentions and we know where the saying tells us that road leads. How many times have we thought we would take care of something, but didn’t? How many times have we promised ourselves or someone else that we would do something and then we didn’t? It is natural for us to do that. Jesus seems to be asking us to consider our follow through.
It may be that Jesus tells the story to ask the religious leaders not what they think about faith, but what they are actually doing to live out their faith. It is a good question and well worth reflecting on. If someone saw us in action, would it be clear that we are followers of Jesus? Or do we count on our words to tell others who we are?
Last week I asked what we do with a generous God. The answer is not what we THINK about a generous God, but what we DO with a generous God. I am convinced that God is incredibly generous, but if that is not always transferred into my actions, I become the son who said I would help and didn’t. If I say that God is generous and I am not, then I am the one Jesus is addressing in this story.
I honestly can’t figure out why being generous is a struggle for me. I deeply believe that God is generous beyond my capacity to comprehend and yet I struggle with questions like, “Do I really have to tip this person? If so, how much do I need to tip?” It is time to fill out my estimate of giving for next year and I wonder if I can afford to give more. Then I stand up and preach about a God who is generous. I think Jesus was speaking to me in a Stewardship meeting several weeks ago.
One of our team members said, “The only way to have enough is to be generous. I have never been without anything as a result of being generous.” That stopped me up short. “I HAVE NEVER BEEN WITHOUT ANYTHING AS A RESULT OF BEING GENEROUS.” I was really in awe of that and YET when I prepared my estimate of giving this week, I wondered what I can afford to do. I need to tattoo those words on myself so I don’t forget that being generous will never mean I go without something.
There is the part of the story where we look at what we think vs. what we do. Then there is the part where Jesus is asking us to consider another’s context rather than judge them. He tells the religious leaders that the parade to God’s reign puts the most despised ahead of them. Perhaps they need to rethink their opinions of tax collectors and prostitutes.
A young minister graduated from seminary just before World War I and he was appointed to a church in a very small town. He had been there only a couple of weeks when he received the call every new minister dreads -- the call to do his first funeral. The person who had died was not a member of his church. She was, in fact, a woman with a very bad reputation. Her husband was a railroad engineer who was away from home much of the time. She had rented rooms in their house to men who worked on the railroad and rumor had it that she rented more than just rooms when her husband was away. The young preacher, faced with his first funeral, found no one who had a good word to say about this woman, until he entered the small old-fashioned grocery store on the day before the funeral. He began to talk to the store owner about his sadness that the first person he would bury would be someone about which nothing good could be said. The store owner didn't reply at first and then he took out his store ledger and laid it on the counter between him and the preacher. He opened the ledger at random and, covering the names in the left-hand column, he pointed to grocery bills written in red - groceries that people had bought on credit -- and then the column that showed the bill had been paid.
He said, "Every month, that woman would come in and ask me who was behind in their grocery bills. It was usually some family who had sickness or death -- or some poor woman trying to feed her kids when her husband drank up the money. She would pay their bill and she made me swear never to tell. But, I figure now that she is dead, people ought to know -- especially those who benefited from her charity who have been most critical of her."
Why do we find it so easy to judge others? Why do we form conclusions about people without knowing their story? There is a ton of judgment happening over NFL players who kneel during the National Anthem. It is ironic that people of faith consider kneeling a sign of deep respect. I read a story this week about the president of a Catholic school where some of the football players wanted to kneel. The president’s requirement was that they talk it over with their teammates. They then spoke at a school assembly about their reasons for wanting to kneel. They were surprised at how respectful the conversations were and how well people heard each other. (http://www.ministrymatters.com/reach/entry/8437/kneeling-at-nfl-liturgies?spMailingID=747846&spUserID=Mzk4NjgyNTUyS0&spJobID=380396849&spReportId=MzgwMzk2ODQ5S0)
It is disturbing that we are so quick to judge people, but WAY TOO SLOW to listen to them. When people stop by the church needing help during the week, I find myself having to decide quickly what to do. We don’t offer money. Sometimes we have gas vouchers, bus passes, or snacks. People don’t show up at convenient times. They just show up and I often stop what I am doing to respond to them. What I RARELY do is take the time to listen to their whole story. I don’t often hear the story behind the story that brought them to the church to ask for help. I go back to what I was doing before I was interrupted, but I often wonder what happened to the person to make her or him come by asking for help.
We are all more than we appear on the surface. We are all carrying a lifetime of experiences. We are all woefully inadequate and exceedingly beautiful. It is good to be reminded that is true of each person we encounter and just as true of those we try and avoid.
The communion table is the place that we are invited to come with our whole selves. It is a place of healing and forgiveness and it is for everyone. One of the reasons I love the text study group so much is that we show up and we speak our truth and we listen. We disagree. Our hearts are opened. We hear something new. Sometimes we are judgmental, but I think we learn and confront that in ourselves.
Jesus calls us to act with love and compassion. He doesn’t care as much about what we think as about what we do. So let us swing the door open a little wider to make room for those we would rather not include. Let us gather at this table of love and forgiveness and let us act in ways that extend that love and forgiveness to others.