Ezekiel 18:1–4, 25–32 ; Psalm 25:1–9 ; Philippians 2:1–13 ; Matthew 21:23–32
Earlier this month one of the most popular musicals of the last two decades closed on Broadway. Based on Puccini’s opera, La Boheme, the musical Rent tells the story of a group of struggling young artists and intellectuals – community organizers you might say – fighting corporate interests in their Lower East Side neighborhood while struggling with the difficulties of love. The musical was one of the first to deal openly with the AIDS crisis and featured many characters living with HIV, taking medicine, attending support groups. It was a story about a musician, a documentarian, a stripper, a drag queen, a philosopher, a public interest lawyer, and a performance artist. It was ground-breaking in terms of its inclusion of gay and lesbian people as central characters in the story. Its success broke the mold so much so that, when they made a movie version of the show nine years later, the things that had made the stage show seem so radical now felt commonplace.
The musical became an immediate hit with young people in the 90s the way the musical Hair was in the 60s. It’s confrontational rejection of the mainstream values of American life struck a chord with a generation living between the first gulf war and September 11th. Its open embrace of people of color and sexual minorities reflected young people’s realities – which their parents’ generation seemed scared by and hostile toward. The musical’s creator, who died just before the show opened off Broadway, insisted that the first row of seats at every performance be saved for rush tickets. This meant that the best seats in the house always went to the people – almost always high school and college students – who were willing to wait outside for hours, sometimes days, to get in for next to nothing. That seemed a little unfair to regular theater-goers, who were paying top-dollar to see the hottest ticket in town, but it reflected the values of the artist whose show they were coming to see – a writer and performer who was challenging the idea that money equaled the right to dictate how space would be divided up among people, inside the theater and out.
This notion of fairness, of status and standing, is at the heart of our readings from Ezekiel and Matthew this morning. Ezekiel responds to God’s people who are trying to escape accountability for their actions by falling back on old excuses. “The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge,” they say. We’d be more familiar with the newer version of this saying, “the sins of the father are visited on the son.” Both try to account for why judgment falls on people and nations by examining the behavior of those who came before us. But the prophet Ezekiel brings a message from God that says, “stop looking to other people for the causes of your suffering. Stop complaining that the life you are living is not fair. It’s you that act unfairly.”
These words ring loud and harsh this week in particular, when the news is constantly about the crisis we’re facing in our economy. Finger-pointing has become a national pastime. Whose fault is this? Was it a previous generation? The shift in the 80s from an economy based on production to one based on consumption? Was it the banks, eager to extend mortgages to unqualified buyers on the assumption that home values would rise forever? Or was it the consumers, assuming that credit would always be easy and available and spending beyond our means in pursuit of the American Dream? Who is to blame?
The economists and talk-radio analysts appear to be in consensus that it’s all of the above. We each share some piece of responsibility, some bit of blame, for the moment we find ourselves in – with perhaps the exception of those who will be affected the most by our economic downturn, those living closest to the ground, to the street, where the jobs will disappear, the wages will stall and the assistance will dry up. And it is to those living with their backs to the wall that God speaks through the prophet Ezekiel, declaring, “know that all lives are mine; the life of the parent as well as the life of the child is mine…”
As a religious platitude, a bit of pious moralism, we aren’t surprised by this. We know the children’s songs: “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands,” and “Jesus Loves the Little Children.” But in practice it’s an affront to us that people who live their lives in ways that we find distasteful or disastrous should have the same access to love and forgiveness that we expect for ourselves. Or perhaps we know all too well what it feels like to be looked at as a disaster, what it feels like to be disgraced, and we simply cannot believe that the love and the acceptance and the community of grace that God wills for all humanity is meant to include us as well.
In the gospel reading this morning we hear that Jesus is teaching in the temple. We’re not told what he’s teaching, but we can guess. When I was in seminary I was told that most preachers have somewhere between three to five sermons in them, and that every text is going to become a variation on one of those sermons. I studied for a semester with Archbishop Desmond Tutu who flat out admitted that he had only one sermon in him – which is a relief to me. “God loves you,” he says, “what else do you need to hear?”
Jesus begins his ministry in the gospel of Matthew by preaching a sermon on a mountain top that starts, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” He appears to keep preaching that sermon over and over again throughout the rest of the gospel. Again, a sweet sentiment, until we begin to wonder if that means the kingdom of heaven isn’t going to be open to those of us who are not poor in spirit, who are perhaps haughty in spirit, or arrogant in spirit, or condescending in spirit. If we take Jesus seriously, then we might get angry or resentful that Jesus appears to be giving away what we think rightfully belongs to us to people who are truly unworthy.
But Jesus takes it one step further, “truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you.”
This reminds me of a story I heard last Sunday at a book reading at Women and Children First in Andersonville by author Scott Pomfret from his book Since My Last Confession. The book is a memoir of a gay Roman Catholic lawyer and writer living in Boston, and tagging along after Cardinal Sean O’Malley to confront him on the damage the church is doing to gay and lesbian people. The author worship at a community led by an order of Franciscan brothers whose openness to people from all walks of life is an affront to the people in the pews who would like to keep those people out of their church. Pomfret recalls one Sunday morning when the announcements in the bulletin included a posting about an upcoming support group for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Catholics to be held at the church. As he tells the story, one of the women – the kind we call “a pillar of the church” – came marching down the aisle with the bulletin in her hand, pointing to the announcement and said, “what is this doing in our bulletin? I don’t want to see this kind of garbage at my church! What’s next? A group for prostitutes?!”
The Franciscan brother took a deep breath and replied, “that’s a good idea. Would you be interested in joining?”
Our immediate response either a chuckle at how this brother put the woman in her place, or horror that he would speak to her in that way. But think about the brother’s answer a little further. What comes
off as a flippant response is actually a very faithful interpretation of what Jesus says in this morning’s gospel. It’s only if you begin with the assumption that there is something wrong with the prostitute, or the gay or lesbian person, that being called either becomes an insult. But the brother rejects that assumption. The brother remembers that it is the tax collectors and the prostitutes that will go into the kingdom of heaven ahead of the rest of us. In a sense that the woman waving the bulletin can’t comprehend, the brother is inviting her to cut in line, to set aside her self-importance, so that she can enjoy what God is building here and now – the kingdom of heaven, the beloved community, the table of full welcome.
Jesus says “the tax collectors and the prostitutes” are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. We would tend to find this unfair, but it’s not a punishment on God’s part so much as it is an observation. Who are the tax collector and the prostitute? The tax collector is the person who is hated – despised – for betraying the community’s values or ideals or identity. Who is the prostitute? The prostitute is the human being made into a tool – stripped of her humanity. The degraded one.
Jesus says the hated and the degraded are going to enter the reign of God ahead of the chief priests and elders – the respectable people of the world. We think this sounds unfair because we hear it as a threat to exclude us. Isn’t it more accurate though to observe that the gate is wide open, but that we don’t necessarily want to be mingling with the hated and degraded people of the world? We don’t want people to think we condone their behavior? Or worse, that we are like them?
The point Jesus is trying to make is that you cannot be the gatekeeper or a guard at the doorway someone else lets you through. That job belongs to God, and in Jesus God makes it clear that all are welcome. This is the meaning of Paul’s advice to the Philippians to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” – work out your own salvation, not somebody else’s. You have to acknowledge that you are alive and here by the grace of God, not any work of yours.
God is here. That’s what we sang this morning – what we taught the children who came forward for the children’s message. God is here, and we should be reaching out to invite people into this place where God’s love is made plain in things you can see and touch and taste. God is here! That is so exciting, such good news, that we should be giving away front row seats!