Monday, October 6, 2014

October 5 Sermon (World Communion Sunday)

Matthew 21:33-46
“Listen to another parable. There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a watchtower. Then he leased it to tenants and went to another country.When the harvest time had come, he sent his slaves to the tenants to collect his produce. But the tenants seized his slaves and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. Again he sent other slaves, more than the first; and they treated them in the same way. Finally he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.” So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him. Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” They said to him, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time.” Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the scriptures: ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes’? Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom.The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.” When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them. They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, because they regarded him as a prophet.
A few weeks ago, in my hometown of Memphis, over a hundred teenagers decided to swarm a Kroger and brutally beat anybody and everybody they could get their hands on. They were indiscriminate in terms of who they decided to beat; some of their victims were young, some were old, some were black, some were white. We know about the particulars because one young woman was with them, videotaping the whole thing, laughing the whole time until she realized that one of the Kroger employees who was attacked had been kicked in the head so many times that he’d been rendered unconscious.
And if this were it, if the police had gone after the attackers and everybody agreed it was awful and should never happen again, that would be one thing. But just this week, the local news affiliate interviewed two young men from Memphis, asking them what they thought about the incident.
“That’s just what our generation does,” one of them said.
“It’s fun,” the other one said, laughing. “Nobody cares about Jail. You go in, and you get out. If you don’t get out, you’re in with people you know.”
And so as a person of faith, you want to know something I’m really struggling with? I’m struggling with the fact that this morning’s scripture lesson sounds so familiar. I want to be able to come to the Bible and learn something new. I want to come to church and hear the preacher open the Bible and say this is what Jesus says and isn’t it revolutionary, but here we are with the story of the tenants who live on the vineyard and kill every single person the owner sends to check on the property, and this isn’t new. It isn’t revolutionary. It’s Memphis. It’s the 5 o clock news. It’s life, so much of what we see in the real world. We already know this story, and we experience it every time we turn on the news and see violence, or we experience loss, or we find humanity faced with a deadly disease. I don’t need Jesus to tell me that people are cruel, that life is not fair. I know that very deeply.
In the church, we call this kind of response compassion fatigue, when we know too much and are just so overwhelmed by it all that we are rendered completely spent. And so like the landowner who builds a vineyard and surrounds it with a wall and a watchtower, we build walls around us, do everything we can to protect ourselves from that cruelty, and we stand in our watchtowers and peek over the edge so that we can sound the alarm if somebody dares approach us, if somebody dares come near enough to speak to us, let alone to enter our lives in such a way as to require us to be vulnerable.
On this World Communion Sunday, the day on which we celebrate our common table, the day on which churches all over the world celebrate communion and we talk about our connection to one another because Jesus has supposedly torn down the walls that separate us, I’ve got to be honest, when I hear this morning’s scripture lesson, I am having trouble getting past the boundaries we set that stand in the way of that connection, the walls we build, the things that block us from relationship, and maybe we build them as survival mechanisms because we are so overwhelmed with the problems in the world that we don’t know what else to do, but they stand in opposition to Jesus! They stand against who Jesus calls us to be one, especially on this day when we celebrate the church all over the world! They stand against the oneness of the church, our unity and our connection to one another, not just on earth, but as the great cloud of witnesses, everyone who has gone before and comes today and will ever come to share in the Gospel feast.
It is these boundaries that Jesus speaks about in the story this morning, when he tells this story to the Pharisees and scribes, the religious leaders of the day who were far more concerned with laws and rules than love and grace. It is these boundaries he’s talking about when tells the story of the landowner, who is God, sending his son, who is Jesus, to check on the rich vineyard of the world, and who, rather than being celebrated as the greatest gift humankind has ever received, is beaten and killed. It’s not that Jesus didn’t know what he was getting into. The world can be a rash, blunt, violent place. It’s not that God doesn’t know. It’s that God loves us enough to come anyway, to break boundaries that might have otherwise kept him away, to share love even in the face of death.
There is power in that kind of witness: not just two thousand years ago, but now! I’d venture to say that it’s a message that is so attractive that it’s one reason this church is growing! We send out first-time visitor surveys with a self-addressed stamped envelope to every first time visitor and you know what most of them come back saying? They say that one thing they just love about North Decatur United Methodist Church is its diversity: not just in race, but nationality, and age, and temperament. For it is the case that when we break down boundaries, when the barriers that separate us are moved or scaled, Jesus Christ is present in that moment, for when two or three are gathered in my name, Jesus says, I am there.
None of this is to say that boundaries are all bad. Those of us who have spent time in therapy know that we need healthy boundaries, personal boundaries which tell us and those around us what is safe and permissible behavior. These are good things. The problem is not healthy personal boundaries. The problem comes when we create boundaries that are not rooted in love for God and love for neighbor. The problems come when we climb our little watchtowers and refuse to come down and say, oh, I’m just trying to protect my boundaries, instead of acknowledging that Christ calls us to break down walls, not build them up.
Let me give you an example. If you call my cell phone—the number is right there in your bulletin—and I don’t answer, you will hear my voicemail, which says that I hope you will leave a message, but that if you are calling on a Friday, you should know that Friday is my Sabbath day, and I try not to conduct church business on Fridays. But do leave me a message and I will get back to you.
Now, I do try not to conduct church business on Fridays, which I think is a healthy personal boundary, but that does not mean I get the day off from being a Christian! I don’t get to eat, drink, and be merry or whatever, without concern for God and concern for you. I don’t even get the day off from being your pastor, and so if there is an emergency, I expect you to tell me! The personal boundary is important, but if it stands between me and loving God fully and loving other people fully, it is not of God, for we see in the person of Jesus all sorts of boundaries being broken: boundaries that kept people from loving one another, that kept whole classes of people subjugated, that kept women oppressed and the poor and the sick and the foreigner out of sight and out of mind. Jesus breaks all these boundaries, for the love of Jesus is for everybody. Everybody.
Of course, of all of Jesus’s boundary-breaking moments, few were as profound as that which happened in the upper room, in the days before his death, in which he gathered the disciples and broke down the ultimate barrier, that chasm between God and people, and said, this, this is my body, broken for you. Eat and remember, not just now, but always. And then he took the cup, and shared it with the disciples, and said this is the cup of the new covenant. Drink and remember, not just now, but always.
Friends, in this feast, there are no boundaries. We don’t turn people away here. While each of us may have our own preconceived notions about who gets in and who doesn’t, about who deserves to be here and who doesn’t, Jesus reminds us in today’s story that the stone that the builder rejected has become the cornerstone. We may sometimes reject Jesus, but Jesus never rejects us.
In this feast, there are no boundaries: not of nationality, of income, of orthodoxy, of age, not even of denomination. For when the time comes, and we celebrate together this holy mystery, in which we experience God’s grace, whatever that means, however God happens to do it, we will do so as a community for whom the ultimate boundary has already been broken, a community that Jesus Christ has reconciled to God, and to one another. It’s why a couple of weeks ago, we took the three movements of worship we do every week here at NDUMC: welcoming, listening, responding, and added a fourth: Reconciling. We do this because Christ did it for us, because in the kingdom of God the boundaries that lie between us are to be broken down, for there is far more that unites us than divides us, and even the things that divide us are no match for God.
Now, if you have been around the church for some time, you may know that on World Communion Sunday, it can be traditional for the pastor to preach about all the missions we’re involved in all over the world, all the good we do and the bonds we’re seeking to build in other countries. These things are good, and I want to honor those bonds, and to encourage you to pray that they strengthen. But there is a danger in this kind of thinking, because when all we talk about are those poor people, those other people, we’re actually building higher walls rather than breaking them down, for in Christ, there is no us vs. them. There is just us. For scripture tells us that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus, and in that love, we are all connected. Nothing can separate us, for God does not give up on us.
This is the good news in this morning’s scripture lesson: God did not, does not give up on us. God kept sending, keeps sending people to walk through the hole in the fence to meet us where we are, and we don’t always respond as well as we should, but God keeps sending. Just as Jesus broke boundaries between rich and poor, sinner and saint, God and humans, so does God break boundaries when he sends us people now. God keeps sending people, even if we keep tarring and feathering them. Even if we kill them. God keeps sending people who cross those boundaries and show us a new way, and what’s more, God calls us to be those people.
This kind of boundary-breaking is not easy, and if you are diligent at it, if you truly seek to break down the walls that separate you and other people, if you seek to live as Christ calls us to live, you’ll find yourself feeling like you’re running into those walls, again and again. But if you keep trying, you’ll feel those walls crack, slowly at first, and then more radically. It takes time, and it takes practice, but that’s why we come together so often to share Holy Communion. This isn’t just about taking the bread and the cup, though it is that. It isn’t just about receiving grace, though it is that, as well. Communion is called communion for a reason—for in the act of receiving it, we are communing with God and one another. Every time we gather at the table, we are practicing for that blessed day on which we will cross the last boundary that separates us, and we will all gather together as one family.

This is practice, and so as we prepare for communion, I want to get you to think about one thing. There are many who feel as if the church does not want them. The barriers they see aren’t necessarily in their own minds, either, because throughout the centuries, the church has sometimes gone out of its way at times to make people feel unwelcome. Some people feel as if there’s a giant do not enter sign on the front door of the church, as if what we’re doing here today is not for them. And because this is practice, in a few minutes, I’m going to do something strange. I am going to place a line of caution tape in front of the altar rail: not to block you from receiving Communion, but because there are plenty of places respectable Christians aren’t supposed to go, plenty of people we’re not supposed to deal with, and yet in this act, we’re in communion with them all. And so when the time comes, let’s practice crossing that boundary together and declare, together, that there is no barrier, no boundary, no divide so strong that it can’t be overcome by the love of God as expressed through God’s people. As you practice this meal and as you experience Christ with these people, may you be reminded that Jesus calls us to bring others with us, for the table is long, and there is plenty of room. Why, there’s even a place for you.

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