A sermon on Matthew 21:23-32 and Philippians 2:1-13 by Alison Sampson
Many years ago, I belonged to a downtown church that found itself sharing its public spaces with some very unlikely people. The secret service appropriated a far corner of the parking lot. There, two agents sat in a darkened car every day, keeping an eye on, I presume, the Russian Embassy. We shared the entrances to the church with homeless men, who set up camp in the sheltered spaces and wandered into church most weeks. And we shared the car park with the prostitutes. Early each Sunday, before the kids arrived, someone armed himself with long handled tongs, wrinkled his nose, and collected up the used condoms which had been left on the ground.
I’m not sure that he spent that time reflecting on how the hookers had it right and were entering the kingdom of God ahead of him. Nor was everyone thrilled by the men sleeping in our doorways. They urinated in dark corners, they begged for money, and their arrival in church was heralded by particularly pungent body odours. I don’t think that there would have been much sympathy had we realised that anyone in our congregation was collaborating with the Russians, or any other government. Instead, I seem to remember lots of muttering about the ways people used our property.
‘Truly I tell you, the collaborators and the hookers will enter the kingdom of God before you do.’ How could this be?
Well, once upon a time, there was a woman who had a couple of kids. She went to one of them and said, ‘Hey love, I need your help in the garden.’ But her daughter said, ‘Can’t you see I’m reading?’, and went back to her book. But later, when she’d finished the chapter, the kid put her book down, and went and pulled some weeds. The mother went to her other kid and said, ‘Sweetie pie, come help in the garden.’ That kid said, ‘Okay, Boss’ but never left the couch. Which of the two obeyed her mum?
Beloved, love one another. Love your neighbour. Love your enemy. Judge not. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. Do not store up for yourselves treasure on earth… for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. You cannot serve God and wealth. Forgive, forgive, forgive.
We all know the right things to say. More than that, we mean them. We feel sympathy for the poor. We know that asylum seekers are treated terribly, and that justice needs to be done. We feel compassion, and empathy, and kindness, and love. We engage with the difficult ideas and theologies of liberation. We think and wrestle with sincerity and depth. We pray for others, that they be blessed as we have been blessed, and we really, really mean it. We are the good guys who feel kindness and compassion… and we know it.
But the problems of the world are too big, too overwhelming. We can’t actually fix anything much. Whether it’s homelessness or boat arrivals or corporate ravages on the natural world or violence against women or wars in the Middle East or the terrors of Boko Haram or whatever; well, who are we to imagine that we might make a difference? There are too many problems and they’re all way too big – and we become paralysed. It becomes much easier to pray for the world, and preach kindness and love, and work on our personal relationship with God, than to take action.
In the parable, which of the children obeyed their parent? The one who said the right thing, and no doubt meant to get around to it sometime; or the one who did the right thing? I think we all know. Saying the right words is not enough. Thinking the right theology is not enough. Even praying the right prayers is not enough. We can feel oh so kind and compassionate, we can spiritualise obedience, we can pray for justice – but Jesus invites us to more. Because if our words and our prayers are genuine, they must bear fruit. They must lead to action.
In the letter to the Philippians, Paul reminds us ‘In your lives you must think and act like Christ Jesus.’ And how did Jesus act? Paul is clear: ‘Christ did not think that being equal with God was something to be used for his own benefit. He gave up his place with God and made himself nothing. He took on the form of a slave…’ And as God’s slave, he loved. He loved prostitutes. He loved collaborators. He loved snotty-nosed grizzling children, bleeding women, and untouchable men with weeping sores. He loved the secret service and the homeless and the hookers. He fed the hungry with food and stories, and sat around the table with them.
And so Paul wrote, ‘Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in y’all – or youse – that was in Christ Jesus…’ This plural ‘you’ is easy to miss when we hear the text in English. But Paul was writing to a group, he was using a plural ‘you’, and we need to hear this. Because, as a group, I think our church is small and rather comfortable. We are becoming fairly good at examining ourselves. But maybe it is time to expand our view a little. If we peek out that door, we see an enormous, threatening, looming housing estate. Of course we can’t take on the whole mess of problems that may seethe away in there. But, as we heard in Paul’s letter tonight, ‘God is working in youse to help youse want to do and be able to do what pleases God’.
And I wonder if that is happening right now. Because things are bubbling up. In recent months, and independently of each other, several people have raised questions about how we use our garden space. Some have wondered if we could offer it as a community garden, where others could come and have a plot and grow their own veggies. Others have suggested that it be developed as a quiet space to sit and pray. Meanwhile, still others have raised, again, the spectre of the housing estate. What are its needs? Can this church do anything about them, or are we too small, and are our members too committed to other really good projects to do anything in this neighbourhood? And is this okay?
With these questions in mind, and with the backing of the host group, I had a conversation with the woman who runs the community gardens at the estate. I explained that we had some space, and were wondering how to use it. We had several ideas, but before we ran with anything, we wanted to know if there was any need for another community garden in the area. She paused, then burst out laughing. Then she told me that the waiting list is so long that most people on the list will never receive a plot. Old people, young people, Anglos, immigrants: dozens of people across the road yearn for a little bit of earth in which they can grow a few beans, pick a few flowers.
When I heard this, I remembered some simple words from Clarence Jordan: ‘Praying for God’s blessing on others is not the same as giving a blessing or being a blessing to others.’ We pray for our neighbours in the estate to be blessed. But could we actually give a blessing? Could our garden be a gift to our neighbours in need?
Being equal with Christ is not something to be used for our own benefit. Answering the call of God on our lives means giving things up, sharing our resources, inviting others in. How we are called to do this requires discernment. But across the road there is a desperate need for garden space. Behind our building, we have a lawn area that is rarely used. Now, I realise that just because there is a need and we might be able to help meet it does not necessarily mean that it is our calling and we should do it. I know that many of us pour enormous amounts of time and energy into building the kingdom in other places and other ways. Yet questions around the garden and the estate have bubbled up, in one form or another, in various members of the congregation in recent months, and so these are questions we need to grapple with.
Kids, go work in the garden. Will we agree, and just keep praying? Will we argue, then go dig some earth? And which garden are we called to work in, anyway? These are good questions for us. So I will keep researching, and the host group will keep thinking, and I hope you will all keep talking and praying, as together we discern how we are to work in God’s garden, and whether, at this time, it involves this garden of ours.
Meanwhile, let us give thanks for the garden which is already a blessing. It’s already a place for kids to run around, and a space for adults to sit. Thanks to the work of Kristen and Michael, we have peaches in the summertime, olives in the fall, and a shady tree or two. Whether this is enough, or whether we are called to develop a community garden, or a reflective garden, or both, or something we haven’t even dreamed of yet, only prayer and time will tell. But whatever happens, I pray that our garden will continue to be a blessing, and will bear all kinds of fruit. Ω