Isaiah 5:1-7 and Matthew 21:33-46
Geneva, our former pastor, and last week’s guest preacher, used a quote that has haunted me the last seven days. It came from Native American author Leslie Silko via the UCC’s on-line StillSpeaking Devotionals.
“I will tell you something about stories. They aren’t just entertainment.
Don’t be fooled.
They are all we have, you see,
all we have… to fight off illness and death.
You don’t have anything if you don’t have stories.”
I think that insight touched me so much, because it’s what I’m trying to impress upon Anna, Madelyn and Warren, who are our worship leaders today because they are beginning their Confirmation Class.
I’m trying to convince them: Confirmation isn’t about what Paulo Freire called the banking style of education: we don’t understand our confirmands as empty accounts, tabula rasas, to be filled by the church.
As a UCC church, we’re not in the business of simply depositing, even vital information, into empty vessels, filling them up with theological or ecclesiastical facts that in the end we will test to see if they’ve retained. Instead, because Confirmation Class is about entry into adulthood in the church, because the UCC is committed to freedom and honesty as the precondition necessary for any belief– whether you have enough to move mountains or just a mustard seed of faith…
Confirmation class, like church itself, is about finding the words to tell your own story. Each of us, beloved, could be said to be a song to be sung, a story waiting to be told. We pray that Anna, Madelyn and Warren will find help from the church, the tradition, the Bible, the Spirit, Jesus, God as they figure out and live out and shout out their own stories…
We are honored, my young friends, to try to help you with your stories. Because we aren’t religious folks who put much stead in mouthing someone else’s answers. Or pretending. In a sense, their are no wrong answers. Just other people’s answers. Or, if you all turn out like the rest of us, you will have as many questions, maybe more than answers. Their stories will be their own, unique, but not unrelated or foreign to the chorus of other stories that harmonize into a new song…
Stories are all we have, church, our own stories and the stories of those who went before us.
Today, our Scripture stories are sort of harrowing. The Isaiah and Matthew readings tell of God’s great hopes and plans for us, they describe us collectively as mission fields that would yield plentiful harvest.
But they also describe a twist… a turn for the worse if you will:
how those fields and farmers and crops never quite live up to expectation.
…how we disappoint God …no, how God can become disgusted with our failure to live up to our promise, how God can become enraged, despairing, turn from us.
In the Hebrew Scriptures, all care for the fields is withdrawn, they are given up and left to return to a forlorn wilderness …fitting since they only produced wildness anyway…
In the New Testament writings, the choice property is taken away, from those whose working it does not live up to its potential… the land that God had promised is taken back and given away to another… And what was exactly was the sin of the erstwhile tenants? it was a failure to show due respect on the part of the field’s stewards to its rightful owners.
How do we act as if what is God’s is ours?
How do we deny God what is God’s?
What then can the owner do, but take it back, forcibly if necessary, and reassign it, enter into a covenant with someone else, someone who will care for properly, give it into some other people’s care and tending.
Beloved, how are these prophecies and judgements our stories?
My sermon title is, “The Meal can’t be holy until all are at the Table,” I first heard this challenge in reference to the welcome and equality of queer folk into the full life of the church. The meal misses out on some of it sacredness while sisters and brothers are denied their rightful place at the Table.
But think for a moment of the phrase’s other possible applications.
It could mean that no meal is holy as long as somewhere people are hungry. As Christians, isn’t it our obligation every time we eat, to make sure we extend an invitation, a hand to those who are hungry?
The phrase could also mean that no Table can ever be complete as long as other divisions separate and split asunder…
whether in your family– think of the holiday meal where there is an empty seat…
whether in our nation– how might it be said that certain people… the undocumented immigrant, or the native american or people of african descent still have not found their place at the Table of our country’s feast?
or even in the church– how is Jesus’ Table of the Last Supper still one of the most segregated meals of one of the most segregated hours in the life of our world– how often instead of gathering around one Table, do we turn this sacrament into the most visible sign of the church’s disunity?
I can’t help but think of how God, head in hands in despairing disbelief … how God must look down on the world and want to give up.We could all be together, eating and sharing and fellowshiping at one huge Table, but…. We act as if is all ours to divvy up and divide, to keep to ourselves, and to use to separate what God created to live in harmony…
Where is the harvest of a fruitful crop?
Where is daily bread for all God’s children?
Where is the sense of service in a world that is not our possession,
but only lent to us that we might make something good of it…
God looks down, and sees what?
Little love of neighbor, much less respect for brother or sister. Increasingly arrogant disregard for the poor, the widow, the fatherless. Unending war over the spoils we try to claim as our own, unending war quite literally robbing food from the tables of the hungry. And despoiled landscapes. Climates changed. Formerly verdant fields wilted and parched. Or flooded. All so we can maintain our convenience, use the world for our own purposes and according to our wills. God looks down and sees growing prejudice and willful misunderstanding:
“Me and mine first, all else be damned. “
God hears our stories of
“You got to watch out for yourself in this world of scarcity.”
Beloved, I can’t help but imagine these days God’s growing disappointment, even disgust…unto giving up on us
God help us…
Thank God, these stories of selfishness, arrogance and disregard… they aren’t today’s only stories. It’s World Communion Sunday. There are also other stories… sometimes I think quieter, humbler stories…of one faith, one Spirit, one baptism.
Of the moments when we realize the unity of the church. The unity of our humanity. The unity of our creation. Or at least stories of how we hope for it.
Remember: as members of the UCC,we are part of a movement, a worldwise family of United and Uniting Churches who believe the faith calls us to move toward instead of apart…together instead of in opposite directions.
Earlier in this service of worship, when we welcomed new folks into this community, this communion, we said together an affirmation of faith… So, today, as the affirmation of faith that our worship tradition locates after the Word preached, I’m going to ask you to turn to a neighbor, and simply in a word or sentence or prayer, tell your own story…
“Why do I take communion?” is the question I’d like you to answer to one another…No wrong answers. But 100 plus different answers. You are invited to chose one, yours, to share. Of course, you might say, “I’m not sure,,” Or “I can’t quite explain.” Or even, just “Amen” (you can always safely “pass” at church when there’s something you don’t feel right doing.)
To give you a minute to think about your story, and to do first what I am asking you…
“For me, communion is both the simplest and most profound movements of the church. When we are children, or when we are very sick, we can’t feed ourselves. And so someone else prepares sustenance, takes food and prepares it, and then quite literally places it in our mouths, that we might live and taste and enjoy and recognize that we are being taken care of.
And though we don’t realize it often enough, there are so many hands involved in each piece of food we have to take and to eat, that it can be said quite literally that none of us can feed ever really ourselves.
Being fed is for me the clearest assurance of grace…that by grace alone does any of us ever survive… Amen.”