Matthew 21:23-32 – The 15th Sunday of Ordinary Time – for September 25, 2011
“He answered, ‘I will not’; but later he changed his mind and went . . .” Matthew 21:29
Ed* was rich, outspoken and confrontational. Here’s my version of several events while I served as his pastor . . .
A church group sponsored a mission project, though I don’t recall the specific goals. Perhaps the mission would provide safe drinking water to villages in Central America. Or they were raising money to build a medical clinic in Africa. The “what” of their efforts seemed admirable to most of the congregation. “Where” became the proverbial burr in the saddle for a few . . . and especially Ed. By supporting this mission, funds would be sent to a country where the United States waged war.
“His” church supporting the “enemy” angered Ed. Didn’t matter to him that his fellow church members were trying to follow Jesus’ path.
Along came the Sunday for a special offering to support the mission. During prayer time, Ed stood in the small, crowded sanctuary and loudly declared from his pew: “This mission project is wrong. I don’t like it. Today, I’m tearing up my check.”
He did. Rip. Tear. Shred. Did I mention Ed was rich, outspoken and confrontational? No one could change his mind.
The church treasurer called the next day. Ed had tossed his torn “gift” into the offering plate.
“What do we do, Pastor?”
I instructed the treasurer to tape the check’s puzzle pieces together and deposit it. The treasurer and I were confident the peculiar check would be honored. After all, we were a small church in a small town. After all, town folk knew Ed often did “weird” things.
I also told the treasurer, “Make sure to designate Ed’s money for a project he supports.”
The check cleared. I tried to clear the air with Ed. Mostly, we agreed to disagree. No one could change his mind.
* * *
A year or so later, I planned a church backpack trip, an easy one for all ages. Ed, well into his sixties, signed up. He helped raise his pre-teen grandson and wanted them to do something together. Good for Ed! Good for his grandson! Hmmm . . . good for me?
Part of Ed’s wealth derived from one of the town’s struggling industries: timber. Once the area around the rural church boasted scores of sawmills. Not any more. Old methods like clear-cutting ravaged the landscape, new environmental policies created belated, but necessary restrictions. Oops . . . Ed didn’t view the situation in those terms. He believed government regulations stripped jobs from the local economy. He calculated a tree’s value based on its worth as lumber, scoffing at references to the forest as a threatened ecosystem.
When have you changed your mind, reluctantly perhaps, and it made a positive and unexpected difference?
But off to the woods we tramped, a handful of hikers, including Ed and the grandson he loved. Ed frequently hurried ahead of the others, ignoring my warnings to stop at trail junctions. Once my wife jogged down an abandoned trail to retrieve Ed from a series of wrong turns.
On the hike’s last day Ed, with his grandson like a shadow, again rushed ahead. I increased my pace and caught up with them. They’d stopped for a breather. The kid stood nearby, munching snacks. Ed sat on the ground, back against a tree. Dirt smeared his face. He wiped sweat from his forehead with a bandana.
“You hear that?” he asked.
Near trail’s end, we were close to a location where “timber” was being “harvested.” The constant growl of chainsaws rattled the quiet.
“Never heard it like this before,” Ed said. “I mean, it’s been so peaceful out here the last few days.” He dabbed his forehead, watched his grandson.
Truth be told, I don’t remember what he said next, or if he said much more. But this I know for sure. The company of others, the shared time with his enthusiastic grandson, and the journey through a thriving forest, caused Ed to listen with different ears. Maybe trees weren’t exclusively income. Maybe the quiet of the Creator’s creation played a role in his life, in his “ecosystem.”
Did Ed change? Did his treasure begin to involve more than a bottom line in a bank statement?
Once, in a simple parable, Jesus spoke about two sons asked to work in their father’s vineyard. One agreed to help and never did. The other refused and then changed his mind.
Who knows when or how people transform, becoming more open to God’s gifts of community and compassion. My authority as an ordained pastor—or as a fellow human being—doesn’t mean I’m “superior” and can tell others what they should do. (Though I could make a long list of when I’ve tried and failed!)
I can’t change another, only myself. But I can try to keep walking alongside the other.
*Yup, Ed’s his real name and I’ve told versions of this story before. Probably will again, since it includes “lessons” I’m still trying to learn!