Archive for common life

Practicing the Common Good

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 26, 2017 by timtrue

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Matthew 20:1-16

1.

The Acts of the Apostles relates that members of the newly formed Christian church shared all things in common:

Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need (Acts 4:32-35).

Similarly, other groups in and around early Christian Palestine—and the Jewish sect known today as the Qumran Community—attempted to live a communal life together.

People in these communities worked. At the end of the day they’d return and the community’s resources were pooled. Regardless of how much or how little each individual member of the community brought in, from this pool the community members were able to live lives of relative equality. Each member drew from the pool as he or she needed.

Discussing these communities one day in seminary, and referring to today’s Gospel, my church history professor posited this question:

“Was Jesus’ vision for his new realm one of communism? That’s what this sounds like to me—or something very much like it. Of course, we’ve seen that communism as a political ideal has failed. But the world’s twentieth-century experiments in communism were atheistic, largely devoid of God. What if God were central? Could a kind of Christian communism work?”

I shot my hand up in the air, along with several other classmates. After a few had shared their affirming thoughts—a few younger, idealistic classmates—it was my turn.

“Try raising five kids,” I said, “and you’ll see right away that communism doesn’t work.”

I was thinking of dishes, for example. Nobody in my family wants to do the dishes; everyone sees them as a chore. When it’s their turn, the family members with a lazier disposition (not to mention any names) don’t do a good job, or don’t do them at all, leaving the more industrious family members to clean up after them. Sharing the chore is supposed to be for the common good; and yet the result is guilt, frustration, and resentment. Christian communism is a nice ideal; but the reality just doesn’t work.

Later that week, at a community picnic, my young professor, whose wife was expecting their first child, pulled me aside and said, “You know, Tim, that was a really profound statement: ‘Try raising five kids; communism can’t work.’”

And I said thank you and smiled politely; and silently wished him good luck.

2.

Now, we can bag on communism all we want; for we live in a culture that values free speech and other liberties that are self-evident. But, at the same time, I’m pretty sure Jesus’ vision wasn’t western capitalism either.

Just look at the parable:

First, early in the day, a wealthy land owner hires some workers. The mutual monetary agreement between them is a denarius, a day’s wage for a laborer. It’s not much; but it is enough for daily bread.

Next, three times more, every few hours, the land owner hires another batch of laborers. Each time a wage is not specifically stated; but it will be a just wage, the land owner assures.

Finally, at the eleventh hour, an hour before the sun sets, the land owner hires additional laborers one last time. This time there is no mention at all of a wage.

So, when the workday is done, the land owner has the laborers line up, the last to be hired at the front of the line. When he pays them each a denarius—same as the agreed wage for those hired early in the day—naturally, some expectations in the back of the line surface: the laborers hired last worked only one hour; it seems only fair then that we who worked the entire day should be compensated more for our troubles.

But when those hired in the middle of the day come forward and are given a denarius and no more, these expectations turn to feelings of entitlement: we who were hired early on did so much more for the land owner; don’t we deserve more compensation?

At last, when those hired first are paid a denarius just like everyone else, there is frustration and resentment. They grumble against the land owner. They feel themselves superior. They voice their complaints. “You have made them equal to us,” they say (v. 12)—as if equality is a negative value.

The land owner wonders out loud if these first hirees might be envious at his generosity.

Envy—ding! ding! ding! That’s one of the seven deadly sins.

Now, the point of this parable is God’s generosity. God treats all people equally, regardless of socioeconomic status, race, gender, or whatever other category we want to place people in. God is generous, benevolent, and good.

Nevertheless, for many of us this parable is unsettling. Dissolved boundary lines aside, it feels unfair; maybe even unjust—like when I end up doing someone else’s dishes.

But I wonder how much of this unsettling feeling has to do with the ideal of western capitalism.

Capitalism teaches us from birth to compete against others, excel, and distinguish ourselves. If we go to the right college, earn the right degree, and work for the right company, why, aren’t we then entitled to receive a higher income than the person who didn’t? And when someone seems better off with fewer credentials, aren’t we prone toward frustration and resentment? Even envy?

And envy—ding! ding! ding! That’s one of the seven deadly sins.

3.

But there’s another option that stands between the human ideals of communism and capitalism: the Christian practice of the common good.

This phrase, the common good, shows up in many places in our Book of Common Prayer. A few examples:

  • In the Good Friday Liturgy, we pray for those who serve the common good, including the President of our country, Congress, and members and representatives of the United Nations.
  • In the Collect for Vocation in Daily Work, we pray, “Deliver us in our various occupations from the service of self alone, that we may do the work you give us to do in truth and beauty and for the common good.”
  • In the Prayers of the People, Form IV, we pray, “Guide the people of this land, and of all the nations, in the ways of justice and peace; that we may honor one another and serve the common good.”
  • And in the Great Litany, we pray, “That it may please thee to inspire us, in our several callings, to do the work which thou givest us to do with singleness of heart as thy servants, and for the common good.”

I’ve said it before: our calling in Christ is not just about a personal relationship with Jesus. Christ’s mission and ministry are for the common good; or, in other words, the best quality of life we can experience together, as a community.

And while our community starts with you and me as individuals, it flows outward, like circles after dropping a rock into the still waters of a pond, to our church, city, state, nation, and the world; from Jerusalem to Judea and all Samaria, even to the ends of the earth.

That’s the idea of the common good. Which is a big part of our calling as followers of Christ.

But, of course, our reality is modern-day America, a highly individualized culture. Ideas about the common good are seemingly lost in a vast sea of individualism.

So then, how do we practice the common good in our cultural context?

4.

Well, I’m glad you asked. Our annual Pledge Drive affords us a wonderful, tangible example.

We will be launching our Pledge Drive soon.

All too often, financial stewardship is addressed from a very individual perspective. We’re asked to be introspective, to look at our personal budgets, to pray individual prayers about what we can reasonably afford to give to God, and figure out a way to give from what is rightfully yours.

But in our financial stewardship, God doesn’t call us just to be individuals, as if stewardship is merely a personal exercise just between me and Jesus.

Yes, personal introspection is a very real part of faithful stewardship; but it is not the complete picture. God also calls us to consider the common good.

Thus, when we pledge, in addition to our introspective, personal considerations, we also need to consider the bigger picture of this church body, its unique and particular makeup; its unique and particular needs.

And we need to consider the biggest picture of all: God is generous, benevolent, and good.

In pledging to the common good, then, we are merely managing what is already God’s: our pledges are acts of love to the Lord our God; and to our neighbor.

And what happens when we pool our resources together for the glory of God? We enable ourselves to live into our common life: we enable ourselves to work together as equals—no competition, no distinctions, no status; no frustration, no resentment, no envy—in order to accomplish Christ’s ministry and mission in Temecula and the world.

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Reconciliation’s Fabric

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , on September 26, 2017 by timtrue

Delivered Sept. 17, 2017

Matthew 18:21-35

1.

The church, a lot like broader society, is a community made up of individual persons called to live together in harmony; to dwell with one another in unity, regardless of whatever differences those individual persons may share. Favorite sports teams, alma maters, political parties, Fox News or CNN—as individual persons within this community we are expected to lay all disagreements aside and live with one another happily.

Well, okay, maybe not lay them aside. And maybe not always happily. But we are expected to work through our differences.

Unlike broader society, however, it is easy simply to walk away. When something doesn’t go the way we want, it’s not that difficult for most of us simply to find another church that suits us, in another part of town; or just to quit going to church altogether. In other words, in the church it’s easy not to work through our individual differences.

In broader society, to walk away isn’t so easy. If you have a difference with your next door neighbor, for instance, it’s not that easy just to pack up and move. You have to work through your differences. If your neighbor owes you a debt and won’t pay, why, you can seek restitution through a court of law. And you probably will, especially if the debt owed you is substantial.

But the church is a nice society. When our neighbor in the pew wrongs us, we don’t seek restitution, like we might in broader society. For the church is called to turn the other cheek.

But neither do we want to seek reconciliation.

Someone has wronged us and we’re hurt. So, we simply walk away.

2.

Remember last week? In the church, conflicts will arise. (And, again, to be clear, I’m referring to conflicts outside of the context of abuse, neglect, abandonment, and so on.) And when they do, individuals in this community are not to seek swift restitution; but neither are they to walk away. Rather, first, they are to seek reconciliation with one another.

Continual reconciliation, it turns out, is the key to living a harmonious life together in this community we call church.

But before reconciliation is even possible, something else needs to be in place. And that something else is what we find in today’s Gospel: forgiveness.

Hearing Jesus’ vision for a ministry of reconciliation, Peter wonders how many times we are to forgive church members who sin against us. “Seven?” he asks.

Seven is the perfect number. And so, probably thinking he’s being generous, and maybe showing off a little to the other disciples that he’s got the perfect Sunday-school answer, Peter asks, “Should I forgive the one who sins against me seven times?”

But how do you quantify, calculate, or measure forgiveness? True forgiveness is absolute. And absolute means infinite: it’s immeasurable.

Someone sins against you once. To forgive their sin absolutely is just as if you’ve cancelled their debt completely and entirely. The account is zeroed out! The file is forever deleted!

If that same person sins against you a second time—maybe even committing the very same sin—why, the first record is nowhere to be found; and so—as far as forgiveness is concerned anyway—the second debt is really now the first.

Similarly, a third debt—if the first two have been absolutely forgiven—should be viewed as merely the first.

True forgiveness is infinite; absolute forgiveness cannot be measured.

And thus Jesus answers Peter with, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times,” or, as some translations say, “seventy times seven”—and, if you’re like Peter, you want to ask, “You mean 490 times then?”

Oh, Peter, how you miss the point!

Forgiveness is the church community’s foundation for a continual ministry of reconciliation; and the point Jesus is making is that true forgiveness is absolute and infinite.

3.

So, what about the master in the parable?

At the end, after he forgives the slave who owes him an absurd amount of wealth; and after that same slave turns around and doesn’t forgive a fellow slave for a trivial amount, the master says he will not forgive the first slave after all.

And the clincher? Jesus says, “And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

So my heavenly Father? Is there a limit to God’s forgiveness?

Well, that is one of the great questions of all time: it gets into the topics of heaven and hell, grace, mercy, and judgment.

On the one hand, if there’s not a limit to God’s forgiveness, then salvation has already come to the ends of the earth.

God is love. Love keeps no record of wrongs. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails.

And so, if God is love, doesn’t this mean that God’s forgiveness is absolute and infinite? For forgiveness is simply love applied.

But absolute and infinite forgiveness on God’s part would mean that Pharaoh and his army are forgiven. It would mean that Adolph Hitler is forgiven. It would mean no less than universalism: that salvation has already come to the ends of the earth. Why then would Jesus have needed to die? Why would the church be necessary at all?

But on the other hand, if there is a limit to God’s forgiveness, then Pharaoh and his army deserve what they got; then maybe all that stuff I heard about hell fire and damnation when I was younger is true; then maybe God is nothing more than a harsh slave-master.

Does God really call us to have an attitude of absolute forgiveness; yet God himself has to act in no such way?

Obviously, there aren’t easy answers to these questions. But the parable offers insights.

Jesus, remember, sets out to answer Peter’s question: how many times should I forgive my neighbor when he or she sins against me?

So, first, this is a question about personal forgiveness, one human individual forgiving another; not about divine forgiveness—not about God forgiving humanity.

Second, this parable is about forgiveness within the church (Peter says, “If another member of the church sins against me”), Christ’s divine community on earth.

And, third, the parable is filled with absurd hyperbole.

The slave owes his master an absurd amount of wealth—an impossible amount, really. The master forgives him absolutely and entirely out of mere pity—something an earthly slave-master would never do. Then the slave turns around and asks a fellow slave to repay a petty debt, showing absolutely no pity when he is unable—also an extremely unlikely result.

The point Jesus is making seems to be that our heavenly Father has forgiven us a great debt, a greater debt than we can ever repay; so it really is absurd when we cannot find room in our own hearts to forgive our neighbors of a relatively small debt against us.

4.

But this brings up a good point about forgiveness. For reconciliation to work; for our church community to be characterized by a ministry of reconciliation, forgiveness has to be a two-way street.

Going back to the parable, the forgiven slave’s real issue was that he couldn’t find it in his heart to forgive the other slave of a relatively petty offense after he himself had been forgiven a great debt. That obstinacy caused a stir in the slave community, so much so that other slaves went and reported his obstinacy to the master.

If we don’t forgive those who sin against us, just as God has forgiven us our sins, we become like Pharaoh: people will cry out to God to deliver them from the shackles we put on them. And we all know what happened to P!

When we forgive those who sin against us; and those whom we sin against forgive us, the fabric of reconciliation remains intact. On the other hand, when one person refuses to forgive another, a thread is snagged and the knitting begins to unravel.

But what if I forgive my neighbor but my neighbor is unwilling to forgive me?

We can’t control our neighbor. So how can forgiveness be a two-way street?

Think of driving. We have lots of two-lane roads around here.

When you’re heading up Highway 79 toward Warner Springs, and Ken and Barbie are coming at you in their shiny new Corvette at an absurd speed, can you control Ken? No! No matter how much you’d like to say, “Hey, buddy, slow down! Hey, my 8yo is in the car with me! Hey, this is a daytime headlight section and your lights aren’t even on!”—no matter what you’d like to say or do—no matter how much you want to control him—you can’t.

Two-lane roads are a kind of dance. You do your part; and the car coming at you becomes your momentary partner, who does his part too. And most of the time it works out beautifully. Sometimes it doesn’t. Either way, there’s no way you’re going to control your partner. You simply have to let go of your desire to control the other person. You have to trust that the person coming at you at an absurd speed will do the right thing.

Ultimately, the only person you can control is yourself.

It’s the same with forgiveness. The call forgiveness is ultimately a call to you as an individual. The call for forgiveness is a call not to control other people, but to control your self: it is a call for self-control.

5.

Now, over the past few weeks we’ve learned a lot about the church.

Jesus delegated his authority over his mission and ministry to Peter; but not only to Peter but also to his disciples—to all of us. The church’s authority is corporate.

For the church’s authority to work harmoniously, we are called to cooperate through reconciliation.

And the church community’s commitment to reconciliation contrasts with broader society, which cooperates through retribution.

Today, we saw that the core of reconciliation is forgiveness, which ultimately is a call to individual self-control.

So, we began with the general and have come to the specific; from creation to the corporate people of God; to the community of the church; to two or three gathered; to you and to me.

And so I conclude by going back outward, from the specific—you and me—to the general—all of creation.

Forgiveness begins with the individual; an individual attitude of absolute forgiveness expands to mutual forgiveness between two or three individuals; and mutual forgiveness between two or three expands to form an entire community of reconciliation, a. k. a. the church.

When it works, then, a community of reconciliation paints a beautiful picture for broader society; a picture that encourages moving away from restitution towards reconciliation.

So, imagine if every individual follower of Christ were faithful in self-control and absolute forgiveness. Wouldn’t we see everywhere around the world church bodies cooperating through reconciliation?

And imagine if broader society did in fact follow the church’s lead.

Imagine: the entire globe reconciled to one another!

This picture is nothing short of salvation to the ends of the earth.

And that begins with you—not your neighbor but you—possessing and maintaining an attitude of absolute forgiveness toward your brothers and sisters in Christ.