Divine Audit

•November 19, 2017 • Leave a Comment

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Here is the basic question I derive from today’s scripture readings and seasonal themes, a question that both ties everything together and leaves me with a point of practical real-life application.

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The first text from the book of Judges comes from the time following Moses and Joshua. The Israelites had moved into the Promised Land, but are not really in full possession of it. They’re faced with conflicts posed by Canaanite culture and foreign fighting forces.

We’re given a mere sketch of the situation, but it appears that a respected leader of the tribe of Naphtali named Barak  has charge of thousands of warriors. He might be engaging the enemy, but is not.

  • Perhaps he is intimidated by their seemingly superior weapons.
  • Perhaps he is paralyzed by analyzing and reanalyzing potential strategy.
  • Perhaps he simply isn’t feeling well.

In any case, it’s the prophet Deborah who challenges him. Deborah gives him the Lord’s winning strategy, encourages movement, and ultimately goes with him into battle. Deborah is the real hero of the story; she calls Barak to be a better steward of the people and land that God has placed in his care.

In Jesus’ parable of the talents recorded in Matthew 25, the prospect of a long journey prompts a wealthy man to entrust his resources to three different managers. Like Deborah, two who have been entrusted with much manage their charge well. And, like Barak, one responds to the challenge in a less faithful way, and fails the master.

In Jesus’ parable, there is no mercy shown by the master. When the master comes to the poor manager given just one talent who appears to have chosen the safest course of action, the master seems to have a psychotic break, sounding for all the world like an abusive or sadistic person. “As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

At first hearing, we may take the side of the poor manager. Why does a manager pursing a seemingly conservative course of action received such a harsh judgment? What are we missing that justifies the ending of Jesus’ parable?

I’ve preached on the passage four times in the past, but this time couldn’t help but read the parable in light of my course work in the nonprofit management program at UMSL. Recently, I completed a case study on fraud in a nonprofit organization. For the assignment, we were charged to examine the organization’s policies on risk management, to determine whether the internal controls were being practiced, and to what extent there were weaknesses in its system of checks and balances.

In the corresponding lecture, Professor Stuerke, Ph.D., C.P.A., described typical characteristics of those who commit fraud. She said that often they are seemingly exemplary employees, who arrive early to work, who offer to stay late. If the officer who is supposed to be locking up the checks or counting the cash is too busy, they’re glad to do those things. If the officer who should be signing authorization vouchers or reconciling bank statements is overwhelmed with an urgent need, they’re glad to take over that function, too. They create so much goodwill by their desire to serve that they’re trusted too much (40 Billion dollars a year too much, according to the Missouri Attorney General).

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This is called the Fraud Triangle, with three points or sides:

  • Pressure prompting internal motivation (I need money) …
  • Rationalization or internal justification (they don’t show enough appreciation, they don’t pay me enough) …
  • are joined by Opportunity (I can take this money, and no one will know).

And so fraud happens.

Back to the parable: The master is going away on a long journey, and entrusts his greatest assets to his best advisors. The third servant, given charge of a single talent, sounds a little bit like the perpetrator of fraud in my case study. He was afraid, he says, looking ahead to an insecure future, the sort of fear that might have prompted him to feel pressure: “I need money.” He calls his master a harsh man, in whose employ he may rationalize a poor choice, for perceived lack of appreciation. He could have invested the money with the bankers, and returned it with interest, but there was no adequate system of internal controls that kept him from taking the opportunity to bury the talent in the ground.

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A “talent” – an ancient measure estimated at 60 to 80 pounds, posed a significant temptation. Imagine a talent of gold or silver. It was equivalent to years of wages, perhaps a lifetime of labor. This was big money. Consider this possibility: perhaps the manager who buried the talent instead of putting it in the bank did so in the hope that his long-absent master never would return, and that everyone else in the household managing larger sums would forget about his single talent. Then one day he would dig it out of the ground to use it as he pleased.

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The master supplies every need of his servants. He comes home from a long trip asking, “How have you used the resources I have placed in your care?” Jesus says that when the Master hears the reply of the servant who buried one talent, the response is not simply, “Oh well, he didn’t think it through carefully,” or “he wasn’t as creative as he could have been.” Jesus’ response is like what ours would be if we caught an employee in the act of mismanaging funds for personal gain.

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As our bulletin materials state, today is pledge commitment Sunday, and the preacher is challenged to consider what the gospel reading for the day might have to say about the annual exercise of raising revenue to support our mission and ministry in a new year. I don’t think the point of the gospel text is to give preacher an excuse to shame you into giving. Even if it were, I know that shame tactics don’t work. I’ve been part of another organization that, year after year, told me this was my organization, and, if I wanted it to succeed, I had to do more and more to help it raise funds. What a drag. I don’t think the point of the text is to promote fear as a feeling of anxiety or panic. In fact, that kind of fear is exactly opposite the direction of our campaign theme “fearless generosity.”

Jesus’ parable about the Master who settles accounts with servants seems relevant to the extent that it encourages a reverence for God, who watches over us, and a healthy respect for your peers in this community, your brothers and sisters in Christ who also are managing resources for the collective good, to whom we owe the duty of doing the same with whatever resources God has placed in our care. The parable reminds us that we arrive at last at a “divine audit,” when each one will be held accountable to the Master according to the gifts and talents he or she has received, no matter how small they may seem. Jesus suggests that God will not be interested in hearing about all of anxieties that prevented our investments in his kingdom, or the rationalizations about disadvantages, and how we might pledged a greater percentage if we had been given more from the start.

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The basic question posed by God will be: “How have you used the resources I have placed in your care?” “What have you done with what I have given you?” May we be found to be good and trustworthy servants!

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Built on a Sure Foundation

•November 12, 2017 • Leave a Comment

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At this season of the year, when the growing season comes to a close, and reminders of death are present all around, the Church universal celebrates the saints who have gone before us. In some traditions, the celebrations have been divided, November 1 devoted to “all saints,” especially holy people, and November 2 devoted to “all souls,” more ordinary Christians like me and you.

At First Presbyterian, we often combine related events, like we’re doing this year. We remember our brothers and sisters in Christ who have died during the past year. We recognize new 50-year members, and celebrate the faithfulness of all those who have spent their lives with this congregation. We reinforce our union in Christ through the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, remembering that these ties are not limited by space or time. For many of us, the day provides a focused opportunity to grieve the loss of a particular family member or friend. When we pause for reflection, we realize that we are indebted to them in ways we can’t completely express, and may never completely comprehend. They, and those who came before them, have laid for us a foundation of faith, hope, and love that goes back through the generations to all the Christians who have ever been, back to Christ himself.

The ways that some churches symbolize these connections is particularly moving and inspiring.

This past summer, during our time in Berlin, Germany, I was able to briefly visit Reconciliation Church. Long ago, this is how it looked.

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During the Second World War, controversy was stirred by two of its pastors, who aligned themselves with the Confessing Church movement that opposed Nazi ideology and interference in church life. The members were divided between those who thought opposing Hitler was a good idea, and those who didn’t. After the war, the Russians began to exercise their influence.

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The church building was in the Soviet Sector, but the pavement in front of the church and most of its parishioners were in the French sector. This meant that when the Berlin Wall was built in 1961, the outer wall passed directly in front of the church and the inner wall passed directly behind it leaving the church blocked off to all but the border guards. The church building stood isolated in what came to be known as the ‘death zone,’ a no-man’s land separating freedom from oppression. After the fall of the Wall, their old building in ruins, the congregation considered how they might live out the promise of reconciliation that eluded them for decades.

The congregation, led by the Spirit I believe, envisioned a new Chapel of Reconciliation to thank God for the reunification of their church and nation. They weren’t wealthy, so they aimed at making the chapel “as big as necessary, but as small as possible.”

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It feels connected to the earth, sustainable, easy to maintain. Says one pastor, when you worship there, “you are truly in touch with nature and you get a sense of the reconciliation that we are challenged to pursue”[1] with the world, and with each other.

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The inner structure is made of clay walls. Into the clay the builders mixed the broken stones of the old church.

When it came time to lay the foundation for First Presbyterian’s new church building, the project team wasn’t too excited about my idea of grinding up old bricks to mix the foundation for the new. But we were given permission to make a symbolic contribution to the foundation.

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In the footings, and to hold up the steel reinforcing rods, an assortment of bricks from our old building form part of the foundation for the new.

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Later today, we’ll have another opportunity to participate in another ceremony with important symbolism. At 12:30 PM, we’ll gather at the new building at 3601 Ridge View Road to participate in a “floor-tagging activity,” writing on the cement floors our names and the names of beloved saints, over which additional flooring materials eventually will be laid. The names will remain a perpetual witness that our church is “built on a sure foundation” of saints and servants, apostles and prophets, all the way back to Jesus himself.

This may seem an unusual thing, and you may question why we would spend time on an activity with a result no one ever will see. In answer, I’d like to point you to an inspirational video by Nicole Johnson.

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She compares the seemingly mundane work of life to the work of those who built the great cathedrals of Europe. If you read about these cathedrals, you will find the builders of the cathedrals often are described simply as “unknown.” Johnson tells the story of an artisan who was observed to be working a long time on a detail on a high wall that, without scaffolding, would never be examined again. He was asked, “Why are you spending so much time on something no one will ever see?” He replied with an answer Christians might remember when asked why we do what we do: “Because God sees.”

Humble artisans whose names are unknown to us today gave their whole lives for a work they would never see finished. Day after day, they showed up day to do their part on a project that often took centuries to complete. They made sacrifices for a job they would never see finished for a building they would never spend time in. Nicole Johnson was so inspired by this revelation, she says, “It was as if I heard God say: ‘I see you. You are not invisible to me. No sacrifice is too small for me to notice .… I smile over every one’.”[2]

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In the spirit in which Johnson speaks, and as we honor the saints and inscribe their names today, may we hear the voice of God saying, “Remember you are building a great church. It never will be totally finished in your lifetime. You may not get to live there very long. But if you build it well, I will. I will live there, and make my home among its people.” Thanks be to God!

NOTES

[1] Henry G. Brinton, The Welcoming Congregation, Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2012, pp. 76-77.

[2] Nicole Johnson, “The Invisible Woman,” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9YU0aNAHXP0 accessed 9 November 2017.

The Faith of the Reformers

•October 29, 2017 • Leave a Comment

cornerstoneReformation Sunday + Cornerstone Dedication; Matthew 22:34-40

Today we mark a unique confluence of events: the celebration of the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, and the dedication of the cornerstone at First Presbyterian’s new building.

I’ve thought about this day for a long time, all the way back to 1983, when I was a student at the University of Michigan. The school sponsored a special lecture series marking the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s birth. For the occasion, the university invited a visiting scholar who was very Luther-like. His name is Hans Küng. He is a Swiss, Roman Catholic theologian who, like Luther, had gotten himself into trouble with Church authorities. In 1979, he was formally censured by the Vatican for denying traditional doctrines such as the infallibility of the Pope, and banned from teaching in Catholic schools. These events provoked an international controversy, and formed the context leading to his popularity. I was fortunate to be a student in Dr. Küng’s class. At the time of the class, I was applying to graduate school, and knew that I would be answering God’s call to full-time Christian ministry. I imagined that if I survived the challenges of life and the rigors of the pastorate, then there would come a day in the latter portion of my ministry that we would be celebrating the 500th anniversary not of Luther’s birth, but the event of his adult life for which he is best remembered: the nailing of the 95 Theses upon the door of Wittenberg Cathedral, the symbolic act that launched the Protestant Reformation. It’s no exaggeration to say that I’ve been looking forward to this day all my ministry, just as I realize this is a day which, for quite different reasons, some of you have been looking forward to for twenty years.

This weekend, Protestant Christians all around the world are marking this event that was a harbinger for greater freedom of conscience, and religious freedom in general. The Reformation that was launched by Martin Luther was extended and organized by John Calvin in Switzerland. Through the leadership of Calvin’s disciple John Knox, the governance of the Presbyterian Church was established in Scotland, with profound benefits for the development of our democratic form of government in the United States, and throughout the Western world.

In retrospect, and in sympathy with our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters, the reformers were not perfect in every respect. Luther’s frustration and impatience with the Jewish people for not converting to Christianity led him to advocate some very harsh and unjust anti-Semitic practices.[1] John Calvin, too, was frustrated by the beliefs and practices of other Christian sects, leading to his approval of the execution of a pastor who did not believe in the trinity, a sad chapter often referred to as “the Servetus Affair,” after Michael Servetus, the executed pastor.[2] The reformers displayed reactionary zeal for their newly rediscovered doctrine of salvation by grace through faith, a belief so vehement that it sometimes resulted in behavior so unChristlike that it damages our reputation yet today.

In this light, it is a particularly good coincidence that the revised common lectionary suggests for this day the gospel text I have read. The question that the lawyer put to Jesus was aimed at getting his sense of priority about 600+ laws you might codify from the Hebrew Testament. This approach to the law was one in which the average man and woman had little hope of fulfilling. Only the religious elite could claim superior obedience, and therefore superior favor with God. This system of law has the power to reinforce evil and deliver death to the people among which it is practiced. It was this evil and death that Paul had in mind when, speaking of his former life as a Pharisee, he called it all “rubbish.”[3] It was this evil and death that Jesus had in mind, when he said to the Pharisees, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others.”[4]

We listen to the story of Jesus and the Pharisees, and we hear that to grasp the letter of the law too tightly is to risk sacrificing its spirit. Among all the religious laws and traditions we have received, we need a way of sorting out which laws are most important. No longer must we live by the limited ethic of the hundreds of laws and codes we cannot possibly remember. When faced with more competing religious claims than you can keep track of, remember that charity is more important than doctrine. Jesus says, “You shall love the Lord your god with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength. This is the greatest and first commandment. A second is like it, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

NOTES

[1] Noam E. Marans, “On Luther and his lies,” The Christian Century, 11 Oct. 2017, https://www.christiancentury.org/article/critical-essay/on-luther-and-lies, accessed 27 Oct. 2017.

[2] http://www.christianitytoday.com/history/issues/issue-12/servetus-affair.html accessed 25 Oct. 2017.

[3] Philippians 3:4b-9.

[4] Matthew 23:23.

 

A Note from the Pastor

•October 27, 2017 • Leave a Comment

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photo courtesy of Jerry Barber … FPCE newsletter article for November, 2017

The photo that accompanies this note was taken by Jerry Barber, and is my favorite from recent weeks at the construction site. It reminds me of a drama that takes place in some European churches at Pentecost. Doves are placed through a window slightly ajar, or let down through camouflaged holes in the ceiling. The choir makes the dramatic sound of the wind. Rose petals are cascaded down representing tongues of fire. In my mind, the photo is captioned with the words, “Come Holy Spirit! Make this place your home!”

Throughout scripture, God’s people are called to look in two directions in way summarized by a theme we’ve been using: “Envision the future, remember the past, share the experience.” This month offers a unique opportunity to participate in this three-fold movement. On Sunday, November 12, we will celebrate Remembrance Sunday at both worship services, naming the members and special friends who, during the past year, have journeyed to God’s eternal realm. We will celebrate monthly communion this day (instead of November 5). New fifty-year members will be recognized. Following the late service, we will travel to the new building at 3601 Ridge View Road to participate in a floor-tagging ceremony, writing on the cement floors our names and the names of beloved saints, over which additional flooring materials eventually will be laid. The theme of the day ties together all our special symbolic activities: “built on a sure foundation.”

You’re invited to join us this special day. If you’re unable to be present, please pray that God will give us all courage and strength to complete this marvelous journey of faith.

In Christ’s Service,

John C. Hembruch, Pastor

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Working on our Welcome

•October 3, 2017 • Leave a Comment
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For in Christ Jesus … the only thing that counts is faith working through love.

–Galatians 5:6  

sermon for World Communion Sunday

Today, I choose to begin the sermon with a “might-have-been-true” story because, sometimes, a story has power to communicate a concept better than a definition or explanation. I wrote the story several years ago, and have de-identified the people involved out of respect for their privacy and freedom of conscience. It may not be historically true in every detail, but it does help convey spiritual truth, from my limited perspective.

“Simon” thought of himself a warrior for God, a protector of the “true faith.” When a new pastor arrived at his church, Simon approached the pastor like a trial attorney conducting a deposition. The minister was examined about obscure points of theology, and cross-examined about controversial social issues.

The new minister did not respond as Simon wished. The pastor wanted to less about controversial issues that divided the congregation, and more about the things that united them in mission and ministry. The minister preferred to be defined by the many things he was “for,” rather than by a few things he was “against.”

Simon was displeased, to say the least. On Sundays, he sat in the back row of the sanctuary, with arms folded, and a scowl upon his face. Occasionally, he would lean forward, and excitedly whip out a pen to write a quick note, as if to document some heresy that had just been spoken from the pulpit.

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The pastor tried to be friendly. Once, he walked across the room to greet Simon with “Hi, Simon, how are you?” With an icy stare, never extending a hand, Simon replied “Just fine,” spun on his heel, and walked away. Another time, the pastor invited Simon to sit down at a table for coffee. Simon said, “I think I’d rather not.”

At the end of the year, Simon finished his term as church officer. Even though he imagined everyone else was shirking responsibility, he had taken up his cross and completed his service. On the final Sunday, after the new officers were ordained, the pastor watched him walk out the door, back straight and head held high. He thought he saw Simon kick the dust off his feet, and rub his hands together, as if cleansing himself of all association with the church. Simon drove away, never looking back, and was never seen in the church again.

Simon is the person who comes to mind when I read the latter chapters of Paul’s Letter to the Romans. There, Paul spends much energy mediating a conflict between two parties.

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One group is called the “strong” in conscience: Christians who feel God’s blessing to eat whatever they please. Another group is called the “weak” in conscience: Christians who, for seemingly important and valid reasons, feel that Christians are morally obligated to avoid certain foods.

Paul’s consistent advice to both groups is to respect one another’s convictions. Each Christian is a servant of God, and, Paul says, it is not proper to judge someone else’s servant. If God is willing to accept such a person, then no one else is in a position to condemn.

Notice Paul’s bias. The ones who are labeled “strong” are more respectful and more welcoming of others who are different than themselves. The ones who are called “weak” display a desire to impose upon others their narrow understanding of the only appropriate Christian lifestyle.

Our text from Romans has been the basis for many sermons advising Christians to curtail behavior that will endanger the fledgling faith of a so-called “weaker brother” or “weaker sister.” But, in my experience, I’ve heard few sermons addressing a more common problem: of the “Professional Weaker Brother.”

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A Professional Weaker Brother has been a Christian long enough to learn to accept the freedom that God allows in non-essential matters. But instead of accepting that diversity, he feigns weakness as a tool of manipulation. “You can’t do, or say, or believe that,” he will say. “If you do, you’ll cause me, my family, or my friends to stumble in their faith.” When that sort of thing happens, the tyranny of legalism threatens the freedom of Christ.

 

In his letter to the Galatians, Paul described a struggle during which he took a stand against the influence of professional weaker brothers in the early Church. The struggle was about the importance of circumcision. Jewish Christians were for it; Gentile Christians were against it. Paul was pressured to require his colleague Titus to submit to circumcision to appease supposedly “weak” Jewish Christians. Paul said that he couldn’t do that, because the truth of the gospel was at stake. “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision or uncircumcision means anything,” Paul said. “The only thing that counts is faith working through love.”

The temptation to appease the Professional Weaker Brother faces the Church in every age. It often starts out with a serious conversation about faithful living in a morally complex world, then devolves into a shouting match between factions with a hard line – sometimes a silly line – dividing them. At one time or another, churches have issued rules against alcoholic beverages (even though for hundreds of years it has been used in the sacrament of communion), against dancing (even though movement is the oldest art form, and David danced before the Lord), against hats, long hair, short hair, jewelry, instrumental music of any kind. Long ago, there was a serious church split between the pro-organ-music Christians and anti-organ-music Presbyterians. In the 19th-century, there was even a long, protracted battle fought between “anti-necktie” and “pro-necktie” Christian groups. That seems nearly unbelievable …

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until I mention the phrases “I kneel” and “I stand,” and we realize that almost every week, a new controversy springs up in our society, with some people on each side accusing the other side of disrespect. When we remember that, then all the old divisions among Christians don’t seem so unbelievable anymore. Where the Church spends it limited energy appeasing the professional weaker brother, there it is also weakened in its ability to fulfill its God-given mission, and behind schedule on accomplishing its ministry goals.

Ed Stivender is a Christian comic, who was popular when I first entered ministry. In one of his standup routines, he had a bit about Jesus and the Pharisees. Jesus’ message was, “Come join the Kingdom of God, and let’s party, party, party.” Then, along came the Pharisees …

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who were a bunch of party poopers. They said, “You can’t come to the party. Why, you would ruin it. First, you have to dress like us, you have to eat our foods and follow our rules.” Party Pooper is another name for Professional Weaker Brother.

When faced with forces that call us nasty names and seem determined to divide us according to this label or that label, God says, “I know your name, you are mine ….” Scripture says that you are a child of God, forgiven, loved, and free. Though you may not always agree with your brothers and sisters, you are part of one family, you are called to journey together in faithful and abundant living.

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Come to the table of grace; welcome to the party!

More Than We Deserve

•September 26, 2017 • Leave a Comment

presentation slides courtesy of Mary Lou S. …

sermon for the 25th Sunday in Ordinary Time ….  Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous? –Matthew 20:15

Like many of Jesus’ stories, the Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard may be deeply disturbing to those who listen carefully to what it is saying. It isn’t a text we are likely to recommend to those seeking advice on work relationships. It’s not a story that we would turn to for encouragement when it seems the system is rigged against us.

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Earlier this month, news broke of a lawsuit on behalf of female employees at Google, who claim gender bias operates within the culture of the company. The lawsuit claims that women are paid less than men for the same work, that they are promoted more slowly, that they are denied opportunities granted to their male counterparts.[1] Telling these women to read Jesus’ parable, and be grateful for what you’ve got, probably wouldn’t be received too well.

In order to give the parable a fair hearing, I think it’s helpful to know something about its context. Some scholars say that Jesus addresses this parable to those who criticize acceptance of sinners and tax collectors into the kingdom of God.[2] Others say that Jesus is responding to those who, with impure motives, seek rank and privilege in his kingdom.[3] The order in which the laborers are paid tells us that, I think. The late arrivers receive their pay, and are free to go before the controversy begins.  With this parable, Jesus isn’t speaking to the downtrodden. He is addressing this parable to those who are feeling high and mighty, who need to be brought down to earth with a dose of humility.

If you look at the events that precede and follow the parable, I think you’ll get a broader perspective of what Jesus is up against. As the nineteenth chapter of Matthew comes to a close, Peter is anxious to hear about his reward:

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“Look (Jesus), we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?” And after Jesus finishes the parable, and after he foretells again the suffering that awaits him, the Mother of James and John comes to make a case for special treatment: “Declare that these two sons of mine will sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom.”

Peter and the Mother of James and John approach Jesus with the attitude that they deserve special treatment, that they have earned it, that it will be less than fair if they don’t. Jesus responds with a deeper knowledge of divine justice. One way to describe it is to say that because God’s grace sustains us, we already have more than we deserve.

Context makes a difference in the way we hear today’s gospel reading, and should make a difference in how we apply it to contemporary situations. Its use by powerful and privileged people to comfort those who are afflicted would be cruel. It is a text better directed to call out an inflated sense of self-importance and an underdeveloped sense of gratitude. Never is such a message more effective than when we take time turn the focus inward, and engage in self-examination.

I engaged in self-examination this week, in the wake of a note from our regional Presbytery Leader. The day of the Jason S. verdict (Sept. 15), he posed the rhetorical questions: “Will church on Sunday be business as usual? Will we use this incident to talk about racism and White privilege ….?” This week, I had the opportunity to tell Craig in person gently and respectfully how those questions stung. I think they stung me for several reasons. One reason is that every week I’m trying to follow God’s call while balancing many competing priorities, and greatly dislike how often I’m told that I should react in a nearly instantaneous way to current events, without deep reflection about a strategy for moving forward. Another reason is that I rarely think of worship and Christian education as constituting “business as usual,” that a sermon carefully crafted or a lesson well executed is part of a much longer process that ultimately may be more effective than a hasty reaction.

By Wednesday, I decided that I should get over my mild irritation. I admitted to myself that a white, male pastor living in suburban Edwardsville probably is too comfortable. I decided to explore what might be said or discussed in the context of a sermon that I haven’t said before or often enough in the past.

It occurred to me that I’ve learned lessons about racism since my elementary-school years in the 1960s, but the phrase of “white privilege” didn’t enter my vocabulary until more recently. The website “Teaching Tolerance” offers a helpful definition:

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[4]

My reflection lead me to a more recent piece in which a comedian name Omar Ismail answered a sincere question: “I am white. That’s all you know about me. Am I privileged based on that alone and assuming I am, should I feel guilt and what should I do about it?” Here is Omar’s reply, in which he compares white privilege to being a tall person in a grocery store.

“Consider it this way. All I know about you is you’re tall. Do you have any advantages? Yes. Does that mean you don’t deserve the can of tuna on the higher shelf? No. Nobody is saying that. Eat away mighty giant. Should you feel guilty about getting the tuna from the top shelf? No. Nobody is saying that. Lighten your soul’s burden and let it fly free in the clouds beneath your knees. Does that mean short people can’t get the tuna? No. Does that mean there aren’t disadvantages of being tall? No. Nobody is saying that. You have our sympathy for your poor bruised knees.

What people are saying is:

*Denying you are lucky is silly.

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Same with white. Advantages. It doesn’t mean you’re rich. It doesn’t mean you’re luckier than a lucky black guy. Nobody wants you to be crippled with guilt. Nobody has ever wanted that, or means those things. It means you have an advantage, and all anyone is asking is that you get that. Once you get that, it’s pretty straightforward to all the further implications.”[5]

I spent most of the rest of my allotted sermon writing time thinking about the problem I have recognizing my white privilege, and the problem I have appreciating the Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard, and how those two problems may be two faces of one common problem.

Commenting on this parable, Barbara Brown Taylor once said that it is entirely possible that, as far as God is concerned, there are all sorts of people who are far more deserving of God’s love than we are. With credit to her, and in light of the grocery store height analogy, I offer this new commentary:

Some people can reach many shelves. Others can reach few shelves for all sorts of reasons. For one thing, some people were not told about the grocery store. They didn’t know where it was, never had seen its shelves, until late in the day. But even if they had, they might not have done much about it. Were they welcome inside? Would there be a ladder available, and someone who would explain just which shelf to climb to find the cereal they needed? There are so many things we mean to do that we never get around to doing: people get sick, jobs disappear, relationships fail, storms wreak havoc, and along with these things, strength and confidence fade away. There are a lot reasons why people end up starving without the groceries they really need to live, and only God can sort out all the reasons.”[6]

In that sorting out process, there is grace. Jesus says, “’Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

NOTES

[1] Merrit Kennedy, “3 Female Former Employees Sue Google Over Alleged Gender Pay Discrimination,” 15 Sept. 2017, http://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2017/09/15/551206265/3-female-former-employees-sue-google-over-alleged-gender-pay-discrimination, accessed 20 Sept. 2017.

[2] Alyce M. McKenzie, Matthew, Interpretation Bible Studies, Louisville: Geneva Press, 1998, p. 72.

[3] Barbara Brown Taylor, The Seeds of heaven: Sermons on the Gospel of Matthew, Louisville, WJKP, 2004, pp. 100-101.

[4] “Teaching Tolerance,” a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center, https://www.tolerance.org/professional-development/on-racism-and-white-privilege, accessed 23 Sept. 2017.

[5] Omar Ismail, “This Quora Answer Is the Perfect Metaphor for White Privilege,” 19 Sept. 2017, http://time.com/4948371/white-privilege-metaphor/ accessed 20 Sept. 2017.

[6] J. Hembruch, after Brown Taylor, p. 105.

 

Moving Forward Together

•September 10, 2017 • Leave a Comment

Slide1In the 18th chapter of Matthew’s gospel, we read advice Jesus gave about how to handle troubled personal relationships.

Slide2

He has come down from the Mount of Transfiguration, a glorious moment, and has turned his sights toward Jerusalem. Difficult challenges lie ahead for his disciples. He knows that times will come when they are tired, confused, or afraid. Like any family, this band of brothers and sisters will experience times of conflict. Like any social network, theirs will need cool heads, calm hearts, and guidelines for developing personal happiness and promoting the common good.

Here are the policy guidelines he recommends:

Slide3

In the words of the famous Bible scholar William Barclay, these guidelines constitute one of “the most difficult passages to interpret in the whole of Matthew’s gospel.”[1] Through the centuries, this passage has been a model for Christian conflict resolution. Church discipline in our Presbyterian Book of Order has been shaped in obvious ways by Jesus’ words. My old professor Tom Long writes about our model: “Its most impressive feature is how persistent and time consuming it is …. Nobody is written off in haste, no one is fired on the spot, no one slams the door in another’s face in rage; to the contrary, a sea of energy is expended trying, time and again, to make peace …. The whole process is focused on the restoration of the offender, not revenge for the offended.”[2]

This policy seems like so much work. You know it’s hard work if you’ve been involved in similar work

  • while in family counseling or family court,
  • personnel management or union negotiations,
  • or the judiciary processes of the larger Presbyterian Church.

Why does Jesus call us to such a difficult path? One way to answer that question is to point again to the best-known verse in this passage: “For where two or three                      are gathered together in my name, there I am in their midst.”

Barbara Brown Taylor says:

Slide4[3]

I was definitely looking for some connections between this text  and the real world when I chose to attend an event on Wednesday night  at Washington University.

 Slide5

It was sponsored by the Danforth Center on Religion and Politics, and featured a guided interview with former Senator, United Nations ambassador, and Episcopal priest John Danforth. As he joked, when you officiate the chancellor’s wedding and the center is named after you, the deck is stacked in your favor that you’ll receive an invitation to speak. Among other things, Danforth restated some themes that have defined both his political career and his ministry, including

  • the thought that the word “religion” is based on a Latin root that means “to bind things together,”
  • that according to the his letter to the Colossians, the Apostle Paul says of Jesus “He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together,”
  • and that in both religion and politics, one of our biggest problems today is that too many people are working in divisive ways that are unhealthy for the common good.

Danforth suggests that the path of moving forward together involves things like a “generosity of spirit” about the policies and tactics proposed for achieving broadly shared goals. Instead of emphasizing only the differences between perspectives, and assuming the worst about the motives of our opponents, we would do better to emphasize points of agreement. Danforth described an era he knows is gone, but hopes is not lost forever, when politicians engaged in social interaction, when it was possible for him to invite Democratic senator Tom Eagleton to sit in an honored place at the family dinner following Danforth’s swearing-in ceremony. Danforth warmly remembers that during the dinner, Tom turned to him, and said, “I bet you wish your father could be here,” and how in that moment of compassion, a relationship developed that would allow them to work in bi-partisan ways.

The influence of a pastor and mentor was most evident in Danforth’s memory of George L. Cadigan, who was bishop of the Episcopal diocese of Missouri when Danforth was ordained to the priesthood. With obvious warmth in his voice, Danforth remembered the way that Bishop Cadigan ended every letter with the words,  “I am your friend.” Then Danforth wondered with us, what if we made a point of saying to those with whom we have an antagonistic relationship, “I am your friend.” He said that in the difficult and sometimes toxic atmosphere we find ourselves in, if you know someone as a friend, you can get things done.

At this point, Danforth’s philosophy seems remarkably similar to someone else whose ministry intersected with public policy.

Slide6[4]

Healthy relationships are so vital that Jesus offers very explicit guidelines about what to do when there’s conflict.

Slide7

You might even say that they constitute a command: to take a risk, to reach out to one another in friendship, to offer and seek forgiveness, to allow the power of His love to transform us, and make us whole.

NOTES

[1] William Barclay, The Gospel of Matthew, Vol. 2, in “The Daily Study Bible,” Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1975, p. 187.

[2] Thomas G. Long, Matthew, Westminster Bible Companion, Philadelphia: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997, p. 210.

[3] Barbara Brown Taylor, “Family Fights,” in The Seeds of Heaven: Sermons on the Gospel of Matthew, Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004, p. 84.

[4] Martin Luther King, Jr., Strength to Love, as cited in Pulpit Resource, 5 Sept. 1999, p. 41.