Saturday, June 7, 2008

4 Pentecost (Proper 5): 8 June 2008

4 Pentecost (Proper 5): 8 June 2008
(Genesis 12:1-9/Psalm 33:1-12/Romans 4:12-25/Matthew 9:9-13, 18-26)
Happy Birthday, Agnes!

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

In the east Tennessee region there lives an unusual, indigenous tribe of people known as Volunteerii Fanis Fanaticus, or in the vernacular, Crazy UT Vol Fans. There are several, distinct clans. The largest and most recognizable emerges in late summer and remains active through the fall. They are easy to spot due to their distinctive, and often bizarre, behavior: dress, language, food, music, and religion. The color orange – a bright, obnoxious shade not found in nature – dominates their clothing: shirts, shorts, skirts, sweaters, caps, boxers – all orange. Their dialect is peppered with loud grunts and greetings like, “Ay…how ‘bout ‘dem VOLS?!” These fans usually have communal meals, often cooked over open fires and served on the tailgate of a Ford F-250, meals washed down with large quantities of various kinds of fermented libations. And they sing a tribal anthem: Good, old Rocky Top – Rocky Top Tennessee. But it’s the tribe’s religion that really sets it apart. Unlike the majority of folk in the East Tennessee Bible Belt, Crazy UT Vol Fans usually worship on Saturday afternoons in mass gatherings of 100,000 or more at Neyland mega-church. The priests are vested with shoulder pads and helmets; the bishop prowls the sidelines. Their sacraments are hot dogs and beer. And they’re just one step removed from human sacrifice: bad referees and losing coaches are especially at risk.

Now mix a little Gator royal blue with that UT orange or let someone in the group sing We Are The Boys From Old Florida, and you know you’ve got an imposter lurking in the tribe – not a good or a safe thing. Vols love to eat Gator.

Dress, language, food, music, religion: these are all important symbols that serve to delimit the members of a group, to define who’s in and who’s out. Symbols are badges of membership and identity. To reject or challenge or subvert a tribe’s symbols from within that tribe calls into question one’s true loyalty, membership, and identity. Wear a blue Florida Gators cap to a UT football game and no one will believe that you are truly a member of the Crazy UT Vol Fans tribe, no matter what you say as the angry crowd closes in.

All cultures have such tribal symbols and second-Temple Judaism – the Judaism of Jesus and his contemporaries – was no exception. Torah – the Law, written and, for the Pharisees, oral as well; the Sabbath; the Temple; and the purity codes – practices and people deemed cleaned or unclean: these were among the most revered and distinctive of the Jewish symbols. These identified the true members of the tribe – members of the Covenant – from the outsiders. When the Kingdom of God arrived, it would be exclusively for those marked out by these symbols. And God help any member of the tribe who rejected or challenged or subverted them. Which, of course, is exactly what Jesus did, both in word and in symbolic action.

Throughout the Sermon on the Mount Jesus contrasts his view of Torah with the traditions of the elders: “You have heard it said…but I say to you,” he repeats, claiming authority over their interpretations of Torah. He heals on the Sabbath and even says of himself, “One greater than the Sabbath is here.” He dares assume the prerogative of God – and of priests and Temple – when he forgives sin by his own authority. Torah, Sabbath, Temple: one after another Jesus challenges the great tribal symbols as if he were saying, “My word is true Torah, my healing is true Sabbath, my mercy is true forgiveness.” In fact, this is exactly what he is saying.

And now he’s at it again, this time perverting the purity laws. Jesus calls Matthew the tax collector to follow him – Matthew, a member of a group so detested, so unclean, that it gets it’s own idiomatic category: tax collectors and (other) sinners. I’ve struggled to find a modern equivalent of tax collector: maybe oil company executive, home foreclosure attorney – someone who sides with the powerful to the detriment of ordinary, struggling folk; someone, in fact, who benefits from the struggle of ordinary folk; someone who has sold-out to special interest.[1] To make matters worse, Matthew hosts a banquet for the Master that evening and invites the only ones who will associate with a now former tax collector – a motley crew of the town’s other tax collectors and sinners. The Pharisees, who at this point apparently dog Jesus’s steps everywhere he goes, see this disreputable gathering and ask his followers why the teacher eats with tax collectors and sinners. Now, we likely want to ask the Pharisees some questions: What business is this of yours? and Why do you care who Jesus eats with? They have every reason to care and every reason to make it their business. Jesus has made it clear through word and action that he is a prophet of the Kingdom of God, that he is redefining the Kingdom of God, that he is reforming the Kingdom of God around himself. His every word and deed has Kingdom significance. This is no private dinner in which the Pharisees would have little interest. No, this is a state dinner, a Kingdom banquet with implications for all Israel and ultimately for all creation. And Jesus has welcomed to it the impure, the outcasts, the sinners – the very ones the Pharisees exclude from social discourse, from righteous Israel, and from the Kingdom of God. This open welcome of sinners to the Kingdom banquet strikes at the heart of the purity code, the symbol of tribal righteousness and identification. Jesus is saying that the Kingdom of God is as available to these people – the tax collectors and sinners – as it is to the Pharisees, perhaps even more available. It is the sick, and not the healthy, who know they need a doctor and seek one out. It is the spiritually starving, and not the righteous, who long for an invitation to the Kingdom banquet and respond with joy and eagerness to the welcome.

Throughout the Gospels Jesus rhetorically asks the crowds, “With what shall I compare the Kingdom of God? It is like…”. And on at least one occasion he likens it to a banquet, a banquet to which the outcasts were not only welcomed, but compelled to come because the invited, righteous guests refused the invitation.

‘Someone gave a great dinner and invited many. 17At the time for the dinner he sent his slave to say to those who had been invited, “Come; for everything is ready now.” 18But they all alike began to make excuses. The first said to him, “I have bought a piece of land, and I must go out and see it; please accept my apologies.” 19Another said, “I have bought five yoke of oxen, and I am going to try them out; please accept my apologies.” 20Another said, “I have just been married, and therefore I cannot come.” 21So the slave returned and reported this to his master. Then the owner of the house became angry and said to his slave, “Go out at once into the streets and lanes of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame.” 22And the slave said, “Sir, what you ordered has been done, and there is still room.” 23Then the master said to the slave, “Go out into the roads and lanes, and compel people to come in, so that my house may be filled. 24For I tell you,* none of those who were invited will taste my dinner” ’ (Luke 14:16-24, NRSV).

God intends the Kingdom banquet – a banquet in honor of and hosted by his son – to be full to overflowing. He offers welcome and hospitality to all who will come. That’s the message of Matthew’s impromptu party of tax collectors and sinners: the Kingdom of God is here and the invitation to fellowship is open to all.

Now, I understand the Pharisees’ objections to this. “You mean to say that righteousness doesn’t count for anything, that the Kingdom of God is going to be populated with tax collectors and sinners and prostitutes and thieves and liars and adulterers and all the like?” But that’s a misunderstanding, a caricature of Jesus’s words and actions. Remember that Jesus’s standard, formulaic announcement of the Kingdom was “Repent, for the kingdom is at hand.” The Kingdom is for all – tax collectors, sinners, and yes, even Pharisees – who will change their minds about sin and righteousness and who will embrace Jesus and his righteousness. You are welcome to the banquet – to the foretaste of the Kingdom – as you are. Should you want to stay, to live and to work in the kingdom, well then, some changes are in order. “Go your way and sin no more,” Jesus often said on other occasions.

So what does this all look like here and now? How is the church to live confronted by this text?

A few years ago Tony [Campolo] flew to Hawaii to speak at a conference. The way he tells it, he checks into his hotel and tries to get some sleep. Unfortunately, his internal clock wakes him at 3:00 a.m. The night is dark, the streets are silent, the world is asleep, but Tony is wide awake and his stomach is growling.

He gets up and prowls the streets looking for a place to get some bacon and eggs for an early breakfast. Everything is closed except for a grungy dive in an alley. He goes in and sits down at the counter. The fat guy behind the counter comes over and asks, "What d'ya want?"
Well, Tony isn't so hungry anymore so eying some donuts under a plastic cover he says, "I'll have a donut and black coffee."

As he sits there munching on his donut and sipping his coffee at 3:30, in walk eight or nine provocative, loud prostitutes just finished with their night's work. They plop down at the counter and Tony finds himself uncomfortably surrounded by this group of smoking, swearing hookers. He gulps his coffee, planning to make a quick getaway. Then the woman next to him says to her friend, "You know what? Tomorrow's my birthday. I'm gonna be 39." To which her friend nastily replies, "So what d'ya want from me? A birthday party? Huh? You want me to get a cake, and sing happy birthday to you?"

The first woman says, "Aw, come on, why do you have to be so mean? Why do you have to put me down? I'm just sayin' it's my birthday. I don't want anything from you. I mean, why should I have a birthday party? I've never had a birthday party in my whole life. Why should I have one now?"

Well, when Tony Campolo heard that, he said he made a decision. He sat and waited until the women left, and then he asked the fat guy at the counter, "Do they come in here every night?"

"Yeah," he answered.

"The one right next to me," he asked, "she comes in every night?"

"Yeah," he said, "that's Agnes. Yeah, she's here every night. She's been comin' here for years. Why do you want to know?"

"Because she just said that tomorrow is her birthday. What do you think? Do you think we could maybe throw a little birthday party for her right here in the diner?"

A cute kind of smile crept over the fat man's chubby cheeks. "That's great," he says, "yeah, that's great. I like it." He turns to the kitchen and shouts to his wife, "Hey, come on out here. This guy's got a great idea. Tomorrow is Agnes' birthday and he wants to throw a party for her right here."

His wife comes out. "That's terrific," she says. "You know, Agnes is really nice. She's always trying to help other people and nobody does anything nice for her."

So they make their plans. Tony says he'll be back at 2:30 the next morning with some decorations and the man, whose name turns out to be Harry, says he'll make a cake.
At 2:30 the next morning, Tony is back. He has crepe paper and other decorations and a sign made of big pieces of cardboard that says, "Happy Birthday, Agnes!" They decorate the place from one end to the other and get it looking great. Harry had gotten the word out on the streets about the party and by 3:15 it seemed that every prostitute in Honolulu was in the place. There were hookers wall to wall.

At 3:30 on the dot, the door swings open and in walks Agnes and her friend. Tony has everybody ready. They all shout and scream "Happy Birthday, Agnes!" Agnes is absolutely flabbergasted. She's stunned, her mouth falls open, her knees started to buckle, and she almost falls over.

And when the birthday cake with all the candles is carried out, that's when she totally loses it. Now she's sobbing and crying. Harry, who's not used to seeing a prostitute cry, gruffly mumbles, "Blow out the candles, Agnes. Cut the cake."

So she pulls herself together and blows them out. Everyone cheers and yells, "Cut the cake, Agnes, cut the cake!"

But Agnes looks down at the cake and, without taking her eyes off it, slowly and softly says, "Look, Harry, is it all right with you if...I mean, if I don't...I mean, what I want to ask, is it OK if I keep the cake a little while? Is it all right if we don't eat it right away?"

Harry doesn't know what to say so he shrugs and says, "Sure, if that's what you want to do. Keep the cake. Take it home if you want."

"Oh, could I?" she asks. Looking at Tony she says, "I live just down the street a couple of doors; I want to take the cake home, is that okay? I'll be right back, honest."

She gets off her stool, picks up the cake, and carries it high in front of her like it was the Holy Grail. Everybody watches in stunned silence and when the door closes behind her, nobody seems to know what to do. They look at each other. They look at Tony.

So Tony gets up on a chair and says, "What do you say that we pray together?"
And there they are in a hole-in-the-wall greasy spoon, half the prostitutes in Honolulu, at 3:30 a.m. listening to Tony Campolo as he prays for Agnes, for her life, her health, and her salvation. Tony recalls, "I prayed that her life would be changed, and that God would be good to her."

When he's finished, Harry leans over, and with a trace of hostility in his voice, he says, "Hey, you never told me you was a preacher. What kind of church do you belong to anyway?"

In one of those moments when just the right words came, Tony answers him quietly, "I belong to a church that throws birthday parties for prostitutes at 3:30 in the morning."

Harry thinks for a moment, and in a mocking way says, "No you don't. There ain't no church like that. If there was, I'd join it. Yep, I'd join a church like that"
(, accessed 6/2/08).

This is a way – not the only way – but a way the church is to live confronted by the text, a way that extends to all the tax collectors and sinners of our day the open welcome of the Kingdom of God and a foretaste of the great banquet that awaits.

When St. Demetrios opens its doors for worship on Sunday evening and the poor and homeless and addicted walk in as if home and mingle with those who feed them during the week, when the table is spread following the service and the “tax collectors and sinners” feast with the “righteous,” that is a way the church is to live confronted by the text.

Shane Claiborne has found a way to live confronted by the text, and Paul Farmer. And I think we, too, have found some small ways in our sponsorship of children and pastors, in our work with the nursing home and the women’s shelter, in our support of Second Harvest and Food for the Poor and other agencies who feed and clothe and shelter Christ in the disguise of the poor. The continuing challenge for us and for all churches is to find ever more effective ways to subvert the symbols of our culture to extend the welcome of the Kingdom to the tax collectors and sinners around us. I long for the Harrys of the world to look at us and say, "No you don't. There ain't no church like that. If there was, I'd join it. Yep, I'd join a church like that.”

[1] This is not to impugn the integrity of oil company executives or home foreclosure attorneys, but simply to say that in our present economic condition these occupations are looked at with a great deal of suspicion and even hostility.

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