Passage: Matthew 19:30-20:16; Exodus 16
Date: September 21, 2008
Preacher: Rev Laurie M. Vischer
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My parents tell a funny story about me at age two. It was about my first good friend, Jennifer. We were playing with imaginary candy. We were imagining the taste, the color, the wealth of it all! But all too soon, our enjoyment of that imaginary candy devolved into a fight over which of us had more candy. We were both crying: "It's not fair! She has more candy than me!"
At the heart of our scripture reading today is a parable that makes some of us squirm and say "It's not fair!" Parables aren't meant to be near analogies, but more a puzzle. The parable is meant to shake up our thinking, to see things a new way. So, I'd like to try to re-frame this parable from Matthew, into a context we might be more alert to, today.
The Kingdom of God is like the Federal Reserve Chairman who saw that the giant financial firms and insurance companies were failing. So, he gave them what they needed. And then, as he saw that the smaller firms were also struggling, he gave them what they needed. And then he saw that the local bank was failing, too, and gave them what they needed. And then, because he saw that there were middle-class families unable to pay their mortgages, he gave them what they needed. And he noticed that the single-mother who hadn't been working needed money to keep her apartment, he gave her what she needed. And the wealthiest people began to grumble that the Reserve had given away money to the poor woman. "Why does she get so much? She didn't earn it. Whereas we were simply paid back the wealth that we had lost. This is undermining the meaning of wages!"
And the Reserve said, "Why do you grumble? Why do you complain about my graciousness? "For many who are first will be last, and the last shall be first."
Friends, hear this good news: God's love is gracious and immense and there is more than enough grace to go around! God wants to be at the center of all our lives, and to sustain us in goodness, no matter the size of our bank account, our achievements, our church attendance, our marital status or sexual orientation or looks, or age or race or physical health or ability. The good news is that when we turn to God-God will work through us as we try to live more for one another, for the common good, than for ourselves.
Some of us have been really shaken by what happened with the world financial markets recently. Many of us are concerned about whether or not we can afford to retire. Or pay for children's college. Some are worried about savings and mortgage payments. It seems to me that part of our challenge as people of faith is to not let fear take hold of us so that we are only concerned about ourselves.
In the upside-down way of the gospel, maybe the present turmoil is our opportunity to ask: How can I be more centered in God? How can I broaden my concern to include the most vulnerable among us? In Greek, the word translated "the kingdom of God", is basileia, "common-wealth."
My training is in theology, not in economics. I understand that the precarious state of the global financial markets is very complex. But it has seemed to me that over the past two decades, our nation's cultural values have shifted. For example, we moved from an understanding of paying taxes as "the rent you pay for living"--something that supports the common good--to an acclamation in the 1990s that "Greed is good!" As our nation's and the world's wealth has become more and more concentrated in the hands of the few, there has also been a shrinking of safety nets: fewer people with health insurance; shrinking of dollars spent per student on education; degradation of the environment and undermining of local economies. Voices advocating for the common good during this time have been stifled.
Did you know that in that last year in the US, more than 13 million children were living in poverty? That's enough to fill about 200 football stadiums seating more than 65,000 youngsters, each. According to a new report by the Census Bureau, that's about half a million more than in 2006. 2008 is expected to be worse than 2007.
Picture a pyramid. The top 1% of the US population holds over 1/3 of the total wealth of the U.S. The bottom 50% of the families have average wealth of $22,800. While the top 1% of families have average wealth of 15 million per family. This is the sort of inequity that Biblical prophets and Jesus denounced, because of the impact upon the poor. The parable we read this morning, is sandwiched between the saying "For many who are first will be last, and the last will be first." Writer and priest, Richard Rohr, said that "Power without powerlessness is always dangerous." Maybe that's why our situation has become so imbalanced.
The first shall be last, and the last first.
The community in which the Gospel of Matthew was first heard was a Jewish community, steeped in religious tradition and practice. "The first" that Jesus referred to, would have been those who considered themselves chosen by God: those observing the correct religious laws. But participation in the Kingdom of God-- basileia -- is not about being religious in the traditional sense. Basileia is about the equality of all rooted in the gracious goodness of God. It is a matter of letting God rule in our lives in a way of self-giving that brings fullness of life to all people.
The Gospel message, and a theme repeated over and over in scripture is this: Merely observing rituals doesn't please God. Regular church attendance and the appearance of clean living won't ensure your salvation. Jesus' call and message is about our hearts. It's about what/who we put at the center of our lives. Turn to God. Center your life in God's uncontrollable Spirit. . .And you will have all you need. The first will be last and the last first.
The other passage for today comes from Exodus 16. It begins with the people who had left the pyramids of Egypt behind. They were liberated, after generations of slavery in Egypt. They followed Moses into the wilderness. And there the reality of the lack of food and poverty set in. They began to grumble and say, "Well, at least in Egypt, we had food. . . What are we doing in this wilderness with empty stomachs
Then God provided the people with manna-bread from heaven. They woke each morning to a flaky, cracker-like substance which nourished them. There was always enough for everyone. There was enough on the eve of the Sabbath to collect for two days, so that no one had to work on the Sabbath. But the thing about manna, was that if you tried to gather up more than your fair share, it would spoil and become wormy. So if you thought you would get more by being first and fastest, your manna would spoil. The first shall be last and the last first.
Today, many people around our nation, including Westminster, are observing this day as the "International Day of Peace." Yes, there is most certainly a link between the tight grip that the powerful few have upon the worlds' resources and wealth, and the violent struggles and wars in our world. Our faith teaches us to live as much for the other, as for the self. When God's Spirit has deep hold in our lives, than we will learn and use non-violent ways to move us toward change. We must trust God for the manna, and try to let go of comfort, familiarity and control.
Now Westminster is in transition, in an interim-interim. A search committee is hard at work to select an interim pastor who will probably be with us for 1 ½ to 2 years, before a new pastor is called.
We are in a transition: beginning a capital campaign to make long-term changes to our church structure-first and foremost, to make the building wheelchair accessible and welcoming to all. The This is My Westminster campaign is also about what we are giving in mission, in volunteer-ism and in growing deeper in faith. In a time of economic uncertainty, there is awareness here-of the bounty of the gifts with which we have blessed. And we are trying, in a small way and maybe even a grand way, we are trying to live into the "upside down" world to which Jesus calls us.
Now imagine, not a pyramid, but a circle: a circle of basileia, the kingdom of God, the common wealth. Imagine God's goodness extended to each one, liberating us to make decisions and to act with concern for all of the most vulnerable, including our planet.
For the last shall be first, and the first, last.
In closing, I want to share part of this prayer , from Death and Resurrection in Guatemala, by Fernando Bermudez.
Lord, may your Gospel be for us not a book,
but Good News, lived and shared.
May we not be embittered by oppression. May we speak more of hope than of calamities. May our denunciations be first subjected to discernment, in community,
brought before you in profound prayer,
and uttered without arrogance, not as an instrument of aggression,
but neither with timidity and cowardice. May we never resign ourselves to the exploitation of the poor, in whatever form it may come.
Help us to be subversive of any unjust order. Help us to be free,
and to struggle for the freedom of the oppressed.
May we never become accustomed to the suffering of the martyrs and the news that our brothers and sisters are enduring persecution,
but may their lives and witness ever move us to conversion
and to accept the greatest loyalty to the Kingdom.
May we accept our church with an ever growing love and with Christian realism.
May we not reject it for its faults,
but feel oursevles committed to renew it,
and help it to be what you, Lord, want it to be.
May we fear not death but infidelity.
What would the world be like if, in our fear, our decisions were based on caring for the most vulnerable among us? What would our lives be like if our concerns turned from ourselves to our common good? What would our church and community be like if we trusted the gracious goodness of God and welcomed that goodness for each of us-- righteous and sinner, rich and poor, men and women? What would our world be like, then?