Life Together: Who's On First?
by Louise Westfall
Among the new “life groups” being formed to deepen our sense of community, the two most popular have a similar theme: Wine and Wisdom, and Theology on Tap. No, not that! I’m talking about the format of these groups: conversation about things that matter in a relaxed setting. People are hungry … er … thirsty for opportunities to get to know God and each other and figure out together how to live in this world with faith and courage.
I think Jesus would approve, based on his own example. His sermons were peppered with questions. He told stories that begged to be discussed. As regularly as he attended synagogue services, Jesus shared meals indiscriminately with tax collectors and thieves, religious leaders and prostitutes, rich people and folks they considered deplorable.
Today’s text is one such example. While the scene takes place in the temple, the action happens after the traditional service in which Jesus had preached — sort of like coffee hour chat, or those all-important parking lot conversations. As we read it, notice how Jesus seeks engagement with his listeners, via a couple of well-placed questions. A reading from the gospel according to Matthew in the twenty-first chapter at the twenty-third verse. Listen for God’s Word to you … and how you might respond to those questions. [Matthew 21:23-32]
The couple approached me during the intermission of the Denver Philharmonic concert Friday night. After a few pleasantries about the glorious music we’d just heard, they pointedly asked “What does this church believe?” In a nano-second a thousand responses flitted through my brain … We believe in God the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth … For God so loved the world … we are saved by grace, through faith … Jesus is a rock in a weary land … Do justice, love kindness, walk humbly … But what came out was this: everyone’s welcome; everyone belongs. The two looked surprised — even shocked — and finally the husband managed to blurt out “Well, that’s a lot different from the churches getting all the press!” The bell chimed signaling the start of the second half, so we left it there. But our conversation continued to resonate through the Brahms symphony and into this sermon.
People today are as startled by the message of inclusion as they were in Jesus’ time. It’s the best good news … and possibly the most offensive.
Jesus’ parable casts a line with a double hook: pointing out the credibility gap between talk and action, and then suggesting that sinful people “get it” more quickly and effectively than religious people. He catches them with the notion of change. The son who disobeyed his father’s directive came to realize he was in the wrong and promptly set out to make it right. The son who dutifully obeyed in word but not in deed saw no need for change. The tax collectors and prostitutes heard John’s call to turn their lives around, recognized their need and acted on it; the religious leaders only complained about John’s lack of orthodoxy compared to their outward obedience to the law. They didn’t need to change their minds or their behavior.
They slammed shut the door Jesus opened. The line between the insiders and outsiders, believers and infidels, remained firmly drawn and impenetrable. Jesus’ mission was to erase that line and his efforts to do so were the primary cause of the conflict with both religious and civil authorities that would result in his execution. Certainty fears blurred lines. Good fences make good neighbors, or so we’ve been taught. Clear boundaries keep everyone in their place and eliminate confusion about who belongs where.
But Jesus refused to accept this perspective; he challenged a binary view that people are either good or bad, in or out. Over and over again in his ministry he demonstrated the promise of authentic engagement that would increase understanding on both sides of the aisle, the border, the neighborhood, the congregation.
Jesus blurred the lines separating people because he knew they were mostly of human invention and mostly false. In the story he told in today’s text, he contrasts the actions … OF TWO BROTHERS. They’re members of the same family. Equally beloved. One did right and one did wrong … THAT TIME. But who among us can claim that our actions and beliefs always match up 100%?! We can all point to times when we don’t demonstrate our deepest values. And we can recall times when the least likely person acts with the compassion of Jesus. Fact is, there’s a little of each brother in all of us.
Friends, I think this text (and so many others) call us to blur the lines between “them” and “us,” and to welcome people into this faith community as the sisters and brothers they are, to engage actively with our neighbors to pique their curiosity and assure them of their acceptance. It’s a major reason why we’ve opened our doors to the Denver Philharmonic and other community partners. When the concertgoer asked what we believe, maybe he wasn’t so much looking for a statement of belief, as he was for some sign that he and his wife would be welcome. It’s only the latest in a number of conversations I’ve had with individuals who crossed our threshold to attend a concert and discover space here to consider church. We can demonstrate the startling truth of acceptance and inclusion. It’s why we go on mission trips – to get acquainted and learn from members of the family in cultures different from our own. It’s why we share meals regularly with New Genesis men, why we’ll gather for a potluck meal on a regular basis, and yes, why we hold discussion groups in bars and breweries to explore faith and listen to one another. A Quaker colleague defines an “enemy” as one whose story we have not heard. Imagine the barriers and walls and misunderstandings that could dissolve if we were open to learning from one another.
I’ve adopted a simple way to reach out and blur the dividing line when I am dining at a restaurant with others. When the wait staff brings the food, I say “My friends and I are going to say grace for this meal; is there anything we can pray about for you?” The waiter is always surprised. Sometimes they demur, “Oh, no, I’m fine,” but far more often he or she responds with a request. Sometimes they even hover around the table to hear the prayer. Usually they say thank you. This isn’t the same thing as inviting the wait staff to church, or handing them a tract. It’s not implying some inadequacy or requiring an action. It’s simply extending a blessing, making a human connection of caring. We’re family. We’ve got each other’s back. (It does, however, require that the tip is generous, because … well, actions really do speak louder than words!)
The title of the sermon comes from a long-ago comedy sketch of Abbott and Costello. In “Who’s On First” the two get hilariously mixed up about the placement of members of a baseball team. Seems to me that Jesus did the same with the faith community. As soon as we think we know who’s on first, in comes what and I don’t know, and throws the whole roster into disarray. Everybody’s welcome. Everybody belongs. Thanks be to God!