I’ve heard it said countless times that everything you need to know about workplace or a school comes when you see who sits with whom at what lunch table.
And it’s true. When you think about it, whom we dine with or choose not to dine with—is often one of the biggest indicators of our values, our likes and what matters to us the most.
There’s one thing I know for sure: in some way, we all know what it feels like to be welcomed at a table or not.
In the gospel lection from Sunday, we found a parable told by Jesus about a group of people who were trying to find their place at the table too.
It’s a story with an intense name: “The Parable of the Wicked Tenants.” (A great text to preach on near Halloween, wouldn’t you say?)
It’s a story that has created a lot of confusion over the centuries because of the anti-Semitism found in popular interpretations of its meaning.
But, it’s a story I believe that has a lot to teach us about the kingdom of God and who is sitting among us as when we come to the Lord’s Table.
The audience gathered around Matthew when we reach chapter 21 of his gospel are the high-class religious leaders of the day, those with the most influence in society. They’d recently seen Jesus turning over the money changing tables in the temple courts. They’d heard Jesus say with clear authority: “My house shall be a house of prayer, but you are making it a den of robbers.”
For Jesus, there was no time to waste on this Jesus’ last week of life.
Again, he needed to teach. So Jesus told another convicting parable. Saying:
There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, and dug a wine press it in. He left the country, and told the tenants of the land that they were in charge. When the harvest time came, the landowner sent his salves back to collect his produce.
But then things got real. It was like a mob take-over of the vineyard! There was no way the landowner was going to get his property back.
For when the slaves arrive to collect the harvest, they’re first are beaten, stoned and one is even killed.
In response, the landowner then sends another delegation of slaves to collect his produce and again, the representatives of the master are beaten, stoned and some killed.
When none of this worked, the landowner sent his son. (Crazy choice don’t you think?)
But again, Jesus says the tenants are angry. They show no respect for the son either. They take matters into their own hands to protect what they think is theirs. The landowner’s son is soon killed too.
And it is at this point that the parable abruptly ends. The text transitions our attention back to the crowd gathered around Jesus.
In verse 40, Jesus asks them, “Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do those tenants?”
This question is Jesus’ way of saying, ok, let’s slow down and think a minute.
The religious pompous, though, were quick to answer, saying in verse 41 about the landowner: “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.”
Or in other words—those crazy tenants, Jesus—please tell us that that they are going to get what they deserve! Please tell us that they’re going to die too.
What comes next is Jesus not affirming or even acknowledging what they say—rather drawing attention back to the scriptures and the using metaphors describing the kingdom of God.
And while some preachers and teachers might then proceed with the rest of the sermon giving you a lecture on Matthew’s take on Jewish/ Christian relations and what came of the Christian movement after the Jerusalem temple was destroyed in 70 AD—and how possibly Jesus was telling this parable to condemn the religious leaders of the day for what was to come after his death . . . .
I am not going to go there.
Instead, in light of the commentary of Professor David Lose, I want to help you think of the parable in this way:
What if we lay aside what the landlord might do in this parable and instead focus on what the landlord actually did?
Martin Luther once said that sometimes you have to squeeze a biblical passage until it leaks the gospel. And I agree with David Lose when he says that this is one such occasion.
It’s the question, I believe, that leads us I believe to gospel. So what did the landlord do?
Though we could easily get caught up in the use of the word “slaves” and the willing sacrifice of life (such as why did the landlord willing hand over his slaves and his sons for torture and slaughter?), if we read this passage allegorically, gems of the landlord’s character begin to shine through.
Gems like determination, persistence and unconditional love.
For, there was nothing that the landlord would not sacrifice on behalf of staying in relationship with the tenants on his land.
Nothing. He gave it all.
Even his own beloved son!
And the same was true of Jesus is what He was trying to convey.
In modern terms Jesus’ message would go something like this:
Listen, crowds, I am about to give my life, own very life so that you can live abundantly too. I am about to show you how determined I am in my mission. Nothing, no nothing is going to separate me from you if you only open yourself up to receive me.
And in giving my life, I’m creating a new kind of kingdom.
A kingdom where it doesn’t matter who deserved what: rich or poor!
A kingdom where it doesn’t matter what your position is: slave or free!
A kingdom where it doesn’t matter where your faith story began: Jew or Gentile!
This is all you need to know about my kingdom. I’m going to be the cornerstone on which it is all built.
It is as if this parable is leading us to SEE what God's table might look like.
For there’s room at God’s table for brothers and sisters who have been eating at the table their whole life who are superstars of Sunday School. And there’s room for those who have not.
There is room at God’s table for those who follow scriptures to the degree of the law and have their daily devotions every day. And there’s room for those who are not.
There is room at the table of God for those who are from the United States with citizenship. And there’s for those who do not.
The question in becomes when is the last time our churches, our communion suppers and our dinner tables were full of people that lived into Jesus' words about what God's table is all about?
It's always fun in my clergy circles to share stories about creative ways we've officiated and served communion. Especially during service trip experiences when the normal supplies are are rare to find, I've known colleagues who have served communion with elements like sweet tea, Cheetos or cinnamon rolls. I've even known colleagues who have even used chocolate wine when a red wine can't be found.
The theology of switching up the elements from the traditional bread and wine (or grape juice) can be frowned upon or celebrated depending on who you talk to. It has been said that communion in the Protestant tradition is really about a shared meal, a common cup, and a collective community so what does it matter what you actually eat or drink? However, personally, I tend to be more traditional in my approach-- bread and wine work just fine for me. Yet I understand why changing the approach isn't so bad every now and then. It is easy for us to get caught going through the motions of hearing: "This is my body broken for you" and "This is my blood shed for you" that we forget the spiritual significance of what we are doing in the first place.
Two weeks ago now, when Kevin and I first arrived in Kenya and began spending time with the staff (all 220+ of them) gathered at the children's center for a day of installation and celebration of Kevin as the new President of Feed The Children International, of course we ate together. It was like Christmas in August, we learned as we shared a meal of chicken, greens, rice,salads, arrow root, bread, potatoes and soda. It was the finest traditional feast they could offer.
But no festive gathering like this one we learned would be complete without a cake. A special cake for the occasion was prepared for us. And a cake cutting ceremony was in order. Kevin and I were invited to the cake cutting table in front of everyone as the community choir sang. Though Kevin and it felt a lot like our wedding (as they later made us feed each other while everyone took pictures . . a quite funny site! And, no I didn't smear it on Kevin's face), learning about the meaning behind the whole event made it all worth it.
Esther, the director of school feeding programs and the MC for the day, passionately explained to all of us, why we were cutting the cake. She said something like this:
If you think about the parts that go into making a cake . . . The eggs, the flour, the sugar, the water, etc you realize that none of these elements are very good if at all on their own. But when you mix them together, adding just the right amounts (and no more than is needed), you get a sweet dessert. You get something that tastes good that all people can enjoy.
In the same way, all of us today are a part of a larger family. We who are many believe that our fellowship is better and sweeter when it is shared. Let this cake today be a participation for you in knowing that each of us is part of a larger family. And when we come together in just the right way, our community and love shared among us is what we call the best life has to offer.
Then, Kevin and I (along with the two other US based FTC staff) were asked to take the plates of little chunks of cake on a plate and pass them out individually to the staff and children as they gathered in a semicircle around us. Simultaneously, everyone continued to enjoy their Sprite, Fanta and Pespi.
If this was not a communion like act, I don't know what is!
As I served the cake from my hand to their napkin, chills ran down my spine and I caught myself saying "the peace of the Lord be with you" on several occasions though no one asked me to do so. It felt to me so much like what I do with my own congregation each Sunday when I give them the elements through hand to hand contact, looking them in the eyes and wishing blessing each participant. In the giving and receiving of the elements as a gathered community, we remember in gratitude the one who gave of his very life for us all.
While the traditions of the church and the communion liturgies that we've passed down from generation to generation are dear treasures in our spiritual lives, I believe, we can't help but keep looking for God's ongoing teachable moments for us. For sometimes the bread of Christ just might come to us in white coconut iced cakes and His cup to us in glass soda bottles. And as we partake, we'll remember the expansive beauty in the Body of our Lord. And taste for ourselves that life in Christian community is very good.
Back to the Basics Series: The Community of Communion
If there is anything that remains constant in the ever-changing world of publishing, it is that Americans will buy a book if they think it will help them be better at doing something. Though, maybe, you are like me and browse the “self-help” or “non-fiction” aisle at Barnes and Noble every now and then thinking to yourself now that’s not really rocket science, I could have written that! Men are from Mars and Women are from Venus seems to be a title any of us could have come up with! (Because we already knew this, right?)
Ultimately, we are a people who like finding a life script which tells us exactly what we are to do. Such is why books like The 17 Day Diet, The Wealth Cure, and The 4-Hour Body are currently on the New York Times Best Seller list. Achieving my financial goals, all while spending 17 days to achieve the body I want, spending only 4-hours a week doing it, sounds great to me, doesn’t it to you? Using one’s own brain and/or practical sense is highly over-rated, isn’t it? Just give me some answers in plain speech.
In the same way, when many faith seeking Christians read our text for this morning, which outlines a script, a plan if you will for how to deal with community relations when conflicts emerge, they jump up and down and say in delight, “Finally Jesus tells us exactly what to do! It’s the script we’ve been hoping for! So let's get to it!"
And the script goes something like this: when there’s a conflict between two members of a church—presumably because someone “sinned” or is at fault for making a mistake of judgment against another, it is the job of the person who has been “wronged” to go and point out the error of ways to the other.
First, this should be done privately. The hope is that the sinning person will listen to the person who is calling them out, and so all will be well.
But, second, if this doesn’t work out, then, the wronged person is to gather support with two or three other witnesses, so to go back and confront the sinner again. And, then if the person refuses to listen to this crowd, the entire church community should be notified of the wrong and if the offender refuses to confess their sin to even the church, it’s the ultimate insult.
Verse 17 writes, “Let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” I.e. you are simply screwed. As Jesus was speaking to an entirely Jewish audience, he compares the unrepentant sinner to the worst type of person that a member of the crowd could think of—thus saying to them, you don’t want to be that person, so make up quickly!
Seems simple enough, but what happens when this comes to play in actual practice?
Pastor Deanna Langle, a Lutheran clergy woman, tells the following story from her congregation of the staff and church leadership seeking to live out these verses of scripture:
One afternoon Rev. Langle, an associate pastor at a large multi-staff congregation, found herself with a crying administrative assistant in her office. She writes:
The woman in front of me was a woman of integrity, deep faith and sincere commitment to the church. She had been hired to be a pastoral assistant, and in that role she had contributed substantial time and amazing gifts to the congregation. She had asked for a meeting with me only after trying to speak with her supervisor, the administrative pastor.
So when she noticed a problem, in this case the pastor’s misuse of power, she confronted the situation and challenged him. The senior pastor tried to silence her and ignore her.
Reluctantly, she asked the executive council to hear her concern, but council members refused.
The pastor had told them that the discussion must remain between the two of them. He quoted Matthew 18 in support of this decision: "If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone." By complying with the pastor and his use of a biblical directive, the council members allowed him to protect himself and them from the truth.”[i]
The pastor simply got a way with a huge error of judgment that would hurt the congregation in retrospect for generations—all because he used scripture to “justify” his actions.
Sounds twisted, but you and I know that stories like this are not isolated cases. I have experiences like this in earlier places of ministry, myself as well. For if there is anything that Matthew 18 has given the church a legacy of, it is not peace and reconciliation, but it is often one of abuse of power, domination of the strong over the weak, and Biblical literalism slammed in the faces of those who are seeking to do the right thing.
For if read literally, these verses seem to imply that if two or three people agree on anything, they have the right to be the bullies. But, if you’ve read any other stories of Jesus throughout the gospels, the concept of these verses seem to say the exact opposite of the message of Jesus we’ve all come to know. The message of “the last shall be first” “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” and all of the turning the world upside down questions that Jesus proposed. So where is Jesus in all of this?
If we turn back a few verses to the beginning of chapter 18, what we find that our lection for today actually comes in the context of Jesus having a few teaching moments with his disciples when they came to him and asked the question: “Who then, is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”
And, though I can imagine that Jesus wanted to knock the boys around a time or two saying to them, “Are you not listening? Have you not been listening this whole time? Why in the world would you ask a stupid question like that?”
Instead, of giving these fellas the quick snarky comment that they probably deserved, Jesus models the different approach to conflict that he was seeking to teach about. Throughout this chapter, Jesus opens up the conversation about how important it is to pay attention to those in whom we usually forget such as the children, those who are lost from home, those in whom we have conflict and those who drive us so crazy that we can’t imagine forgiving them yet one more time.
And, thus, without directly saying it, Jesus answered the “Who is the greatest the kingdom of God?” question by reminding them that there is another question altogether to be asking in the first place: “What is the kingdom of God?” Saying, life in the kingdom of God is all about an inclusive vision of the world where those who would seem to matter the least are not left out.
So, getting back to our particular lection for today, we discover that the over arching message Jesus is teaches goes back simply the COMMUNITY he hoped his disciples would create—a community that would be the foundation of their lives together as their faith was shared with the world. They would need to a pay attention to conflicts among them because it had EVERYTHING to do with how they lived out his mission on earth.
But, in our social networked everything world these days, community is a word that doesn’t strike our ears as that unusual. Dave Loose puts it like this, “Community, after all, is one of those feel good words that draw us into idealism—we imagine something out of Cheers, a place where everybody knows your name is glad you came. But the really difficult thing about community is that it is made up of people! And people—not you and me, of course, but most people—can be difficult, challenging, selfish, and unreliable. Which means that usually when we’re daydreaming about community we’re often prompted to do so because we don’t particularly like the people—i.e. the community!—we’re currently a part of.”
But, if we are going to take Jesus seriously here, and we know that how we treat one another when we don’t see things clearly really does matter, then you and I are going to have to think of community in more serious terms than the care free nature of the theme song from Cheers.
We’ve got to know that bitterness, unresolved pain, and gossip can kill any fellowship faster than the presence of a dead snuck can kill an outdoor party. And, protecting our fellowship, matters doesn’t it?
So, with this true, we have to pay attention to how we are getting along with one another in community realizing that as human beings a) no one is perfect (including your pastor)
b) communities are made up of these imperfect people
c) when problems arise and we’re involved, we are to do something about it, namely be a grown-up and go to the person with whom you have a conflict and work it out directly first, and
d) if that doesn’t work, seek wise counsel from within the community knowing that it is the community’s responsibility not to choose sides, appoint blame, but to care enough about all people to see the struggle through.
Because I’m sure I’m not telling you anything new when I say that as human beings, we will always face conflict because our nature is to act independently, write people off when they hurt our feelings, rather engage one another in the deep wells of community.
Yet, the question remains then, what will we do with the conflict when it comes? And, how will the church community be any different from the average mom’s club, running group, knitting circle, wine tasting gathering or investment circle—what makes a faith community so unique?
When I think about how a faith community, that Jesus was teaching about, distinguishes itself from all others, I believe a good way to understand it, all goes back to what it is we do here every month at this table. For it is in communion, you and I say something together about what type of community we are.
I want you to take out your bulletin this morning and look ahead in the service plan about what is upcoming in the service after the sermon. You’ll notice that the first thing we’ll do after being invited to the table is to pray a prayer of confession together. It’s an act we partake in as an expression of our faith in this being a meal that is not of us, but of God. And because it is of God, we must be mindful of God’s holiness—saying to the Lord that we have fallen short of all the good things prepared for us, and before we receive the bread and cup of Christ, we must consider our role in purifying our own minds, hearts and souls as individuals.
And, second, we will pass the peace of Christ to one another. While I know this is one of the most enjoyable parts of the service for many of you, like a good intermission break of musical chairs to greet your friends with hugs and handshakes of peace—its practice says so much more than meets the eye.
We greet one another in the peace of Christ as a remembrance that we are ALL a part of God’s body. We all matter to God and so we all are to matter to one another. And, so if we are out of fellowship with ANYONE that we worship alongside, we out of fellowship with God .
Coming to the table, you see is not an individual driven act, it’s not a place where we come to get blueprint of what to do next, or even a place where we can come thinking we are in this alone.
Rather, it’s a place where we define our community as one giant messy experience of faith in something larger than ourselves with our brothers and sisters in Christ as companions on the journey. So that we can’t ignore fussiness, gossip, bitterness or discord of any nature if we want to truly see God’s presence in our midst. We have to claim our work with one another in community building as a sacred, a very sacred act.
The type of community we are to create, according to Matthew’s gospel, you see, is not to be made up of some token inclusivity that means diversity guidelines, politeness, and political correctness—but rather a state of being where we take our cues from this supper: a supper of radical inclusivity. The supper where Jesus taught us who was the greatest, when he as the Son of God, sits among this followers and says, “This is my body broken for you.”
I know one of your favorite songs, like it is mine, is the one that exhorts us, “They’ll Know We Are Christians by our love.” Today, as we take this meal and live out the message of Jesus that all are welcome here and in this body, all people will know we are Christians by our love of how we treat one another. It’s as basic and complex as that!
Won’t you join me today at this meal of love and celebrate together in our worship the community of Christ from which our communion is shared?
[i] Langle, Deanna. “A Careful Read (Matt. 18:15-20)” The Christian Century Online. http://www.religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=3263