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Living in God's Country

Sermon – 9/25/05
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Matthew 21:28-32

According to Matthew's gospel, Jesus speaks of the Kingdom of God like a vineyard -- uses the image of a vineyard to describe God's realm on at least three different occasions.  Matthew has grouped those three stories together in the 21st chapter of his gospel.  We looked at the first of those last week (the story of the workers who come at different points during the day to work in the vineyard and then they are all paid the same daily wage), and the text this morning is the second of those three, the third follows (we'll have to save for another Sunday).  

So then reading the second, which occurs in chapter 21, verses 28 through 32:  

‘What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, “Son, go and work in the vineyard today.” 29He answered, “I will not”; but later he changed his mind and went. 30The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, “I go, sir”; but he did not go.  31Which of the two did the will of his father?’ They said, ‘The first.’ Jesus said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. 32For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.

The point of this story I think is pretty straightforward.  Summed up well be Soren Kierkegaard, the famed Danish philosopher and theologian, who said:  "Jesus wants followers, not admirers".  They're what I call 'Nike Christians' -- the Christians that know the will of God and 'just do it'.  Followers who carry the cross, not admirers who worship him from afar.

There's plenty here in this story to chew on, not hard to swallow, but it can be a little hard to digest.  As I said last week, Parables normally have a twist, something in the story that turns your world upside down, that surprises you.  This parable itself does not have such a twist, but it's Jesus' application of the parable that comes as a bit of a shock, when he says to the good folk gathered there that the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going to get into the realm of God before you.

Now if you're not offended by that, you didn't hear it very well.  As I said last week, you may recall the story ends with the scripture 'The last shall be first and the first shall be last'.  This is once again an illustration of that -- those that we think are last, that we can't imagine, the ones that we think least likely to get into God's Kingdom are the ones that get there before us, Jesus says.

Now I want you to take note of the context of this story, because context (the location of the story) is very important.  Just to illustrate the importance of context, don't know if you caught the news last week, but three world leaders were captured by some rebels and were convicted of crimes against humanity and sentenced to death by firing squad.  So they took the first, Prime Minister Tony Blair, stood him up in front of the wall and lined up the soldiers and the commander shouted out "Ready! Aim!". . . ..  And Tony Blair, thinking of the hurricanes, just suddenly blurted out "Tornado!".  And the soldiers dropped their guns and ran for cover.  And Blair quickly jumped over the wall and escaped.  And they figured out what was going on, and figured well, we still have two more.  So they proceeded with the executions and pulled out German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder.  Stood him up in front of the wall and the commander said "Ready!  Aim!". . . . And Chancellor Schroeder shouted out "Earthquake!".  They dropped their guns and ran for cover and stood under the door jams, and Chancellor Schroeder jumped over the wall and escaped.  They figured out what was going on, and figured they still have one more.  Pulled out President George Bush.  Stood him in front of the wall, and lined up the soldiers, and the commander said:  "Ready!  Aim!" . . . the President, thinking of the last two examples, and knew that Earthquake wasn't going to work, knew that Tornado wasn't going to work, so he shouted out "Fire!".  J

You see, context is everything.  The context, the location of the story is the Temple.  And the day before was the story of the cleansing of the Temple -- you remember that story.  And Jesus comes back the next day, goes into the Temple, and begins to engage the spiritual leaders of the nation in conversation.  And it's to those holy leaders, the righteous people, the best the nation has to offer, it's to those folks that Jesus says 'tax collectors and prostitutes are going to get into God's Kingdom before you'.  It had to come as a bit of a shock to them.

Now maybe he was talking to the chief priests but by allowing us to listen in on the story, Matthew is involving us and here's the bad news folks:  by virtue of being here in the church you're in the Temple too.  You're amongst that crowd of righteous folk.  

Now my first reaction to this story is that I don't want to be in that crowd.  I want to be the prodigal son whose welcomed home with open arms and they throw a big party for him.  I want to be that lost sheep that the shepherd goes out and searches for and rejoices when he finds it.  I want to be those workers who come at the very end of the day and still get paid the same daily wage.  I want to be in that group.  Not in this group.  But here we are.  In with the folks in the Temple, the good people. 

When I was in high school in Albany, we came to Eugene to hear Nicki Cruz.  Anyone remember Nicki Cruz?  The Cross and the Switchblade.  Billy Graham made a movie about him.  Great story -- this gangster, grew up on the streets of New York and got involved in gangs and involved in all kinds of criminal activity (you name it and he did it) and then he met an evangelist.  His life was turned around, he gave his life to Christ, became a very powerful witness.  Here we were a bunch of impressionable high-school students hearing this amazing story (this guy had done things we couldn't even fantasize about).  Powerful, we went away thinking about our own stories.  What kind of witness would I give?

I went to church all my life and then I found Jesus and then I went to church some more.  You know it just doesn't have the same kind of power that Nicki Cruz had.  Do we have to sin so that grace may abound, as Paul asks?  By no means.  Jesus is not out to make sinners out of good people.  He's out to make doers out of good people.  As one wise person said 'All we need for evil to succeed is for good people to do nothing'.  

We are called, then, first of all to be doers of the word.  And secondly, if you take this example, the application that Jesus gives here, then to listen to the voices of the tax collectors, the prostitutes, the last of society.  

I'm sure you, like me, were rather disgusted in the wake of hurricane Katrina to see all the looting.  People just tearing apart their own community.  Shaking our heads wondering why, how could they be involved in such?  The last time we saw that kind of looting in our country so widespread, I think, was in 1992 in South-Central Los Angeles -- remember the Rodney King affair?  Four white police officers were acquitted for the beating of Rodney King.  And when that news came out that they were acquitted the proverbial hell broke loose in South-Central Los Angeles.  Riots all across the city.  Fires and looting and the news captured one truck driver who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time -- they drug him out of his cab and nearly beat him to death.  

How do you explain such violence, that makes us look like some third-world battle-torn country?  One way to do it is to listen to the voices of those tax collectors and prostitutes, the looters, the people setting the fires.  To hear what they say.  To hear the mother of five, who coming out of the shoe store with her arms filled with boxes of shoes, say to the news reporter:  "For the very first time, I will be able to put shoes on all of my children's feet".  To hear the man unemployed for three years, gave up looking for work, walking out of the store arms full:  "Now my children will have a Christmas".

Now the poverty doesn't justify the theft.  Never does.  But it sets a different context, it helps us to see it in a different light.  Maybe to be a little less judgmental.  

Reverend Lania Pearson, who is the pastor of First Unitarian Church of Los Angeles in Korea town, right in the center of where those riots were occurring in 1992, came to this conclusion from his observations in his own community -- he said:  "The so-called bad elements of the poorest echelons of our society are but mere reflections of the bad elements in the richest echelons of our society.  Those who have been running the country for their profit.  To those who question those poor people who seem to be taking advantage of a situation, I say they have learned well their lessons from the super rich".

Do we think that's changed at all today?  We might disagree, we might have a different understanding, but the fact remains that a growing number of people, especially in the inner cities, especially people of color, feel that they are the ones who are being robbed when banks do not lend to them, when employers do not hire them, when landlords won't rent to them.

On this reconciliation Sunday I think it is important that we not let our preoccupation with the devastation caused by the two hurricanes detract us from the devastation caused by centuries of racism.  I really struggled with this -- we're in the midst of our stewardship campaign.  We've just had now a second hurricane.  We gave $4,000 - $5,000 to Week of Compassion.  How can we expect people to give more to reconciliation?  How can we not?  The racism has been going on a long time before the hurricanes came.  And what's really sad, when I looked at the reconciliation web site, I learned that whereas over 80% of Disciples (of Christ) churches give to disaster relief through the Week of Compassion, less than half give to racism relief through the reconciliation program.  That in itself says something about the racism of our society.  We cannot not respond.

So even while, especially while, we focus on our Generations of Generosity campaign to raise our own stewardship levels in faithful response to God's generosity, we also must take into account the larger reality of our world where racism and war and poverty and hurricanes destroy homes, rip apart neighborhoods, and take away innocent lives.

So how do we respond to such massive forces of nature and nation, of wind and war?  And it's really rather simple.  Just do it.  Look to the vineyards -- God's vineyards.  Live out that vision that Jesus describes of God's country, the realm of God, the Kingdom of God.  Which really has very little to do with our future in the next life and everything to do with our present in this life with God's presence in this world, now.  With the way in which God is here with us, God's intent for us to be lived out in our daily lives.

We will be good stewards, you see, not when we meet our budget goals but when we make this place, First Christian Church here in the heart of Eugene, a county of God's country.  A light to the world.  That place where Christ's vision of God's world is lived out.

When I moved away from Oregon in 1974 I told people whenever they asked (in Indiana and Oklahoma and California and Germany) where I was from, I said I'm from God's country.  And I meant that.  You know, the valleys and the mountains and the coast and the forest.  There's just no place like Oregon, the beauty of this state.  And after lingering in California and sojourning there for 9 and a half years in the land of perpetual sunshine a friend from Fresno asked me what it was like to come back to Oregon and all the rain here, and I said it felt like home.  I was just a dried out Duck.  And I've been re-hydrated.  I wasn't a very happy Duck yesterday [football team lost to top-ranked USC], but I'm still here in God's country.   

You see I have learned from Jesus that God's country is really not about beautiful scenery, mountains and coastlines.  God's country is where even the tax collectors and prostitutes, the alcoholics and the convicts, the looters and the losers can be beautiful too.  

When we moved in 1999 from the River Road neighborhood to our current home over in the Ferry Street Bridge area, I had a garage sale.  Everyone does--you know, trying to get rid of all that junk.  All kinds of people came by -- rich, poor, young, old.  People driving brand new BMWs.  People driving beat up Toyotas.  Grandmothers with babies, teenagers with dreadlocks down to their waist.  Just every kind of imaginable folk.  And they all pretty much said the same thing, unfortunately, they said:  "Gee, there's just not anything here that I can't live without", and went away empty-handed.  So we moved our junk J.

But my image, my image for God's country is like that garage sale, where all kinds of people, every kind of imaginable person can find, and does find, that which they cannot live without.  And that is the presence of God.  And I wonder, do you suppose, could it be, that they will find it here?

I hope so.

 


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