October 4

Liberal Arts

By Marsh Chapel

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Matthew 21:33-46

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There is a liberal art in generosity.

Jesus meets us today to challenge us, to confront us and to inspire us with the hope of something new. Faith in Him, and love for his fruitful community, and a life directed toward a final hope—all these lie before us in this holy hour.

Some years ago, in our first year after seminary, a very small act of mercy, of generosity, on the part of a colleague, began to show me the power of the new life, found in the doing of the faith. As the psychologists say, the heart follows the hand.

We had only been married a couple of years, and had more recently entered the working world. Some of you are there today, others remember those days, others expect them, one day. Our little house was gradually filling up, or being filled up, with the materials of early married life. A car in the driveway. Clothing on the line out back. A crib. Dog food bow in the kitchen corner. Wedding and family photographs in new albums. It all happens so quickly! Marriage, degree, job, house, child, car, dog, clothes. All of a sudden. It hardly seems real, or possible.

One day during this period in our early life together there came a most surprising bit of information. This news was delivered in the course of a simple supper, as the dog barked and the drying clothes flapped in the breeze and the baby upstairs cried on to sleep. The information was in sum a medical bulletin, one of those little messages from doctor to patient to patient’s family, an insignificant bit of news as far as the televised world news was concerned, just another report, and a report on a lab report. Soon there would be another mouth to feed. What excitement! It hardly seemed possible, or real.

But reality did set in.

And reality did set in, was ushered in, not surprisingly, by means of the checkbook. Ah the checkbook. Stern reminder of the limits of life. Unerring measurer of the various pursuits of happiness. Implacable judge of the ways of humans. The checkbook. Clothes, dog, child, car and all finally had to be paid for, from one source. Reality did finally set in. Both Paul and Matthew, by the way, today in our lessons, in their own way, are trying to convey a sense of reality.

So, it was in this period of early marriage, the period of judgment by way of the checkbook, when, I recall, a real kindness was done.

Among many other unmanageable expenses, our car needed new brake pads. I did check to see the price that would be charged to have them installed. I wondered how we would afford it. Which is where things sat on a late summer evening, in a small cottage-like parsonage, nearby one of the great Finger Lakes, with the clothes flapping on the line, the dog well fed and ill behaved, and the baby crying to the moon above.

The next evening I met with a neighboring minister, a man about 15 years older than I. We did our work, and then set to talking about life in general. The topic of cars and brakes and brake pads somehow wiggled to the surface, and with it all the manifold cares and worries of this life, about which the Scripture says, “Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof”. This fellow minister then suggested that the next day, early in the morning, I bring the car to his house, where and when he would teach me how to change the brake pads on the car. This we did together. In the course of the morning we also talked through various strategies open to young married couples to avoid the stern, grim judgment of the checkbook. There are ways, it turned out, and he had been there.

I know this backwater tale of an unheralded act of generosity done in 1980 hardly constitutes earthshaking news. I guess it is just a matter of vineyards and harvest, of the prize of the upward call, of the way we ought to be, as people of faith. Such a recollection of such a simple generosity, a liberal art, one of the great liberal arts, hardly seems worth mention.

And yet it meant a great deal, and hovers in memory, years later, four decades later, as the very grace of God. Here is one doing what he and we ought to have done. Here is an act of compassion. Here is an act of mercy. Here is something new. Here is what Emerson meant: “virtue alone creates something new”.

Today, you may sense a hunger, a sharp hunger in the souls of women and men from all different walks of life. It is a hunger that does not abate with the ministrations of all that position and fortune and plenty can provide.  It does not wilt in the face of pandemic, of climate, of presidential contest and calumny, of abuse of law in the name of order, of personal betrayals near and far. It is a hunger that reaches for God. It is a hunger for God. There is a hunger for God today in the souls of men and women that will not be filled by anything else. It will not be filled by anything other than God. Finally, the hunger and thirst for righteousness—and there is such a fine, fine hunger in your own heart—can only be filled by God, by love, by freedom, by grace. By the faith of Jesus Christ and by love for his community and by a life directed toward a final hope of glory.

We can and will proclaim this hunger from this pulpit. We can and will announce God’s gracious love from this pulpit. But in the end you will find it, or it will find you, in your own experience. One by one. Two by two. You are likely to be shocked to faith by no more than one real encounter with one real act of generosity at the hand of one real person. Or, said negatively, as dour Matthew might, if one real generosity does not point you to new life, will a hundred, or will a thousand? One grace note, rung and heard, is all it takes.

Here is the vineyard, still. Here is the wine press, still. Here is the harvest, coming still. There comes a time when our time is no longer our own. So today: Let your own hand guide your own heart. Act in kindness and you will find that you are kinder too. Act in generosity and you will discover a generous spirit within. Act with faith and faith will find you. Your heart will follow your hand.

We come to meet Jesus who meets us in deed, now, not only in word. He meets us in the central moment of life, the full giving that is real loving, the real loving that is full giving, the offering of life for life.

The question is, are we ready to receive Him today?

There is a liberal art in generosity.

There is a liberal art in humility, especially the humility of labored self-criticism, the humility of communal and rigorous self-assessment.

We shall try to muster some such this morning, to try to interpret the parable from St. Matthew, his own interpretation of what St. Mark left him.  The last 250 years of rigorous, labored biblical self-criticism gives us the motive and the power to do so.  Our predecessors in this work gave us a lasting and graceful example of humility, here the humility to put every passage of Holy Scripture to the test of historical, critical study, as a basis for theological, homiletical reflection.  And this is an awesome gift, hard won, won with cost.  But the fruit of it is grace and truth, and also a way in which to make some sense of parables like this, which, served raw, without historical critical cooking, will produce dyspepsia and disease.  The humility to do so, since the 18th century is a liberal art, call it the art of humility. So, we learn that Matthew writes in 85ad, rewriting Mark from 70ad, who wrote about Jesus in 30ad.  So, we learn that ‘the stone the builders rejected.’ v 42, is from Ps 118 and is taken over from Mark.  So, we learn that in Mark the rejected stone must be Jesus, but Matthew, adding vss. 41b, 43 makes it refer to Christians. The nation is the Christian church, composed of both Gentiles and Jews. So, we learn that the passage seems to have been a commonplace of early Christian preaching, since it is also found in Peter’s speech in Acts 4: 11 and 1 Peter 2:7.  So, we learn that in 22:7 Matthew may also have the Jewish War in mind,  and that vs 44 is not original.  (IBD, loc. cit.).

Let Peter Berger, of blessed memory, remind us:

There is a huge literature about the problems raised by Biblical scholarship for faith and theology. The problems exploded with the rise of modern historical scholarship being applied to the Bible, beginning earlier but then progressing impressively in the nineteenth century. Much of this new scholarship took place in Protestant theological faculties, especially in Germany—a historically unique event of religious scholars applying the scalpel of critical analysis to the sacred scriptures of their own tradition (repeat). The meaning of “critical” here is clear: Biblical texts are analyzed in the same way as any other historical text, with the question of their revelatory status rigorously excluded from this exercise. Many Biblical scholars succeeded (and still succeed) in understanding the revelation being somehow preserved within the all-too-human processes that produced the text. (American Interest, blog).

I am one.

A good friend asked: ‘Why does Matthew say God tortures?’, referring to a gospel lesson from two weeks ago. And I wrote back to say I really couldn’t fully answer, except to note that Matthew’s dark side waxes as his gospel wanes, and much of that, in grief to humbly state it, is laced with ancient anti-semitism.  That is, in the latter chapters, Matthew’s language turns decidedly grim.  We hear that again today.  Yes, we keep the rhetorical mode of hyperbole in mind.  Yes, we recognize the religious penchant for odium theologicum,’theological hatred’.   Yes, we can see the dark clouds of the terror of Emperor Domitian on the late first century horizon.  But none of that alone will allow us to make sense of Matthew’s harshness here.  For that, we will have to render and conjure what lies just underneath most of these later chapters.  That is a fierce Matthean love for the church, protection of the church.  That is a fierce Matthean love for the church, and viral commitment to fruit:  “The fruits, unexplained in the text, are doubtless…good works, and the broad expression used shows that Matthew intends a general principle:  in all ages, the Kingdom of God is only for fruit-bearers…the Christian church, insofar as it ‘bears fruit’…It is noteworthy that the emphasis Matthew feels he must add for the proper understanding of the parable is the very one commonly neglected or reinterpreted today”(that is, the command and demand to bear fruit, pronounced by the addition to Mark of vs. 43). Parables of the Triple Tradition (C. Carlston), 143.

St. Matthew’s fiercest passion, wells up out of the scripture for these weeks in September. Matthew holds a very high view of the church, far higher than we expect, far higher than yours and mine, we could add. In waxing religion today, the church is largely an expedient – to be used, often for good causes, but to be used to be sure, and then, if there is time, to be loved. If the horse is dead, dismount, says one. In waning religion, the church is often also an expedient – though here for causes more progressive than traditional, interests more mental than physical – to be used, often for good causes, but to be used to be sure, and then perhaps loved. This the fundamentalists and radicals have in common. What did Augustine say? We use what we should love and we love what we should use. Yet for Matthew, the church is empowered with the means of lasting forgiveness, with a mind for sound ethics, and especially with the real presence of Christ: “wherever two or three are gathered together in my name, there I am in the midst of them”.

Matthew trusts this risen Christ and this voice of the risen Christ to free him to follow his bliss, to succumb to his passion. It is the passion of an evangelist who finds every blessed possible way to connect a Jewish Jesus with a Greek world. It is the passion of an evangelist who enlists an old missionary teaching tract (“Q”) to spread inspiration, truth, and joy. It is the passion of an evangelist who portrays your Savior among pagans, amid harlots, appended to the cross, about the resurrection work of compassion. It is the passion of an evangelist who sums up his Gospel this way: “Go make of all disciples”.  The whole point of the gospel of St Matthew the evangelist is that he is an evangelist. He it is, not me, he it is, not we, who points you to a new passion, one you (plural) have not intimately known. Matthew’s passion? A people producing the fruit of the reign of God.  Don’t just talk, do.  Do you notice, and squirm? Matthew is moving the parable away from judgment on Israel toward judgment…on the church, if and as the church does not bear fruit worthy of repentance.  On us, if and as we do not bear fruit. (repeat). 

Generosity, Humility.  Two Liberal Arts.  Generosity, Humility.

Generosity.  What two things shall you offer, gratis, this week, to God and neighbor?

Humility.  What are the two truest, lasting criticisms of you that others see, but perhaps do not mention, the two areas of most needed personal growth?

In a moment we will hear again the ancient liturgy for eucharist.  We are not together to receive together the bread and cup.  But we are together in relationship, by memory, in hope, through prayer.  And with a little imagination, with eyes closed and hearts open, we might allow the familiar, ancient prayers of communion, to bring us into communion.

So, travel with a little imagination…Imagine Eucharist at Marsh Chapel.  Stand to sing… Pause to reflect… Step out into the aisle… Look at and look past Abraham Lincoln and Francis Willard…Receive cup and bread, bread and cup… Kneel at the altar to pray… Stand in communion with the communion of saints…Here is the bread and cup of friendship…Imagine, if you are willing, your own funeral, say right here, and a congregation reciting together a creed, a psalm, a hymn, a poem.  Imagine, if you are willing, a congregation currently in diaspora, but just now, by the word spoken, a gathered and thus addressable community, you and I and all together.

-The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill,  Dean of Marsh Chapel

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