September 25, 2011
Ezekiel 18.1-4;25-32; Matthew 21.23-32
+ I will admit. My interests are viewed by some people as a bit morbid, shall we say. I am one of those rare people who actually enjoy things like cemeteries. Now, I need to be clear. I like cemeteries not because I’m morbid. I like cemeteries because I have always been a history buff and there is no better place to find some great stories.
Recently I read a book put out by the Red River Genealogical Society about the Cass County Cemeteries. Now what few of us know is that, just a few blocks north of this church, there are two cemeteries. Unless you actually get out of your car and walk into the actual cemetery you wouldn’t even know they’re there. But if you do, you’ll see a large boulder.
In one cemetery the boulder is inscribed COUNTY CEMETERY #1. The one is located at the end of Elm Street. Where the road forks, one to the Country Club and the other to the former Trollwood, right there, on the left fork toward Trollwood, is the cemetery. You’ve probably driven by it countless times and never had a clue.
County Cemetery #2 is located on the other side of the old Trollwood, just within sight of where the old main stage stood. Back along the bend in the Red River, there is a stretch of grass and another boulder. This one says COUNTY CEMETERY #2.
A third County Cemetery was located on north Broadway. In 1984, those graves were moved to Springvale Cemetery, over by Holy Cross Cemetery, near the airport, because they were falling into the Red River through erosion.
For the most part, many of the graves in Springvale are marked. But in the first two cemeteries, there are no markers at all. No individual gravestones mark the graves of the people buried in the first two cemeteries. In fact, if you walked into them, you would have to force your mind to even accept the fact that it is a cemetery. But there are hundreds of people buried in those graveyards.
These are the forgotten. These were Fargo’s hidden shame. Beginning 1899 and going through the 1940s, this where the prostitutes, the gamblers, the robbers were buried. This is also where all the unwanted babies were buried. There are lots of stories of unwanted babies being fished out of the Re River. This is where the bodies of those unnamed babies were buried.
And when one walks in those pauper cemeteries, one must remind themselves of those words we hear from Jesus this morning in our Gospel reading.
“Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the Kingdom of God ahead of you.”
There, in those cemeteries, lie the true inheritors of the Kingdom of God. Last week in my sermon I quoted the great Reginald Fuller, who said:
“[This] is what God is doing in Jesus’ ministry—giving the tax collectors and prostitutes an equal share with the righteous in the kingdom.”
That—and those words of Jesus we heard in this morning’s Gospel reading—are shocking statements for most of us. And it should be. It should shock us and shake us to our core. It’s a huge statement for him to make.
But I think, like many of his statements, it has lost the full weight of its meaning for us, in this day and age. Partly it does because, we can grasp the understanding about prostitutes—after all, prostitutes are still looked down upon by our society in our day. After all, we do still view prostitutes with contempt. They are another segment of our society that we tend to forget about it. But we really should give them concern. And I don’t meant from a judgmental point of view. I mean, we should give them our compassion. We should be praying for them often. Because we often hear the horrible stories of what people have to deal with on the streets. The stories of what drove them to the streets are horrendous enough. But the stories of what keeps them on the streets are just as bad. And the dangers they face—day and night—are more mind-boggling than anything we can even imagine in our safe, comfortable lives.
Truly prostitutes throughout history have been the real exploited ones. They are the ones who have lived on the fringes of society. They are the ones who have lived in the shadows of our respectable societies. They have lived dangerous, secret lives. And much of what they’ve had to go through in their lives is known only to God. They need our prayers. They need our compassion. They don’t need our exploitation. They don’t need our judgment.
As uncomfortable as it is for us to confront them and think about them, that is exactly what Jesus is telling us we must do. Because by going there in our thoughts, in our prayers, in our ministries, we are going where Jesus went. We are coming alongside people who need our thoughts, our prayers, our ministries. And rather than using them, rather than continuing the exploitation they have lived with their lives, we see them as God sees them. We see them as children of God, as fellow humans on this haphazard, uncertain journey we are all on together. And, more importantly, we see in them ourselves.
There, but for the grace of God go us. Had we been born in different circumstances, had life gone wrong for us in certain areas, and who are we to say we wouldn’t have been there? Or who we are to say we wouldn’t be the exploiters?
So, we understand what Jesus is saying about prostitutes. But tax collectors? Why all this talk about tax collectors not getting into the kingdom of heaven. No doubt, few of us like the prospect of tax collectors. Few of us are overjoyed at the thought of taxes or anyone having to collect them. But certainly they are very rarely if ever classed along side prostitutes in our day, unless under some scandalous circumstances.
But for people in Jesus’ day, for moral, good Jews, tax collectors were seen as traitors. And they were religiously unclean according to the Law because they handled the money of the Romans, which had the image of the emperor on them, who was, in very real sense, worshipped as a pagan God. So we can understand why tax collectors and prostitutes are viewed with such contempt in Jesus’ day.
The point of this morning’s Gospel is this: the Kingdom of God is not what we think it is. It is not made up of just people like us. It’s not going to be like going to the country club or Monte’s or the HoDo (two of my favorite places) or any of those other places we like to go to feel good. It is not even going to be like the Episcopal Church.
It is going to be made up people who maybe never go to church, who may never have gone to church. It is going to be made up of people we would never imagine stepping foot inside a country club or a fine restaurant. It will be made up of those people we don’t notice. It will be made up of those people who are invisible to us.
It will be made up of the people we don’t give a second thought to.
In our society today we have our own tax collectors. They are the AIDS patient, the Alzheimer’s patient, the cancer patient, the mentally ill. They are the welfare cases. They are the homeless. They are alcoholics and the drug addicts and the drug dealers. They are the depressed among us, they are the lost among us, they are the ones who are trapped in their own sadness and their own loneliness. They are the gang leaders, they are the rebels. They are the transgendered. They are the cross dressers. They are the radical Christian, the radical Muslim, the radical Jew. They are the ones we call pagan, or non-believer or atheist. They are the ones we, good Christians that we are, have worked all our lives not to be.
This is what the Kingdom of heaven is going to be like. And when we, in our arrogance, in our self-righteousness, think that we have all the answers, when we think because we do this and do that, that somehow heaven is our inheritance, that is when Jesus stands up to us and says to us, “Don’t be so quick to think you have it all figured it out.” It is then that he shakes his finger at us and reminds us that the inheritors of heaven are not us at all, but those people we have passed on the way to church on Sunday morning.
They are the people who look up at us from their marginalized place in this society. They are the ones who peek out at us from the curtains of their isolation and their loneliness. They are the ones who, in their quiet agony, watch as we drive out of sight from them. They are they inheritors of the kingdom of God and if we think they are not, then we are not listening to what Jesus is saying to us. We are plugging our ears and closing our minds and we are turning our backs on the Gospel.
When we think about those county cemeteries just a few blocks north of here, we need to realize that had Jesus lived in Fargo, had he lived 1900 years later and had died the disgraceful death he died, that is where he would’ve ended up. He would have ended up in an unmarked grave in a back field, on the very physical fringes of our city.
In fact, we can say that he is there. He is wherever the inheritors of his kingdom are. Those cemeteries for me are potent reminders of who inherits. They are potent reminders to me of who receives true glory in the end.
It is not just the ones lying in Riverside Cemetery under polished granite and marble gravestones. It is not just the ones lying in graves covered with well-tended grass, decorated with flowers and mementos, like my own father is. It is not just the ones whose ashes lie in the columbariums and memorial gardens of our churches.
It is also these—the forgotten ones, the ones whom only God knows. They are the ones that, had life turned out just a bit different for us, would be us.
Of course, we too are the inheritors of the Kingdom, especially when we love fully and completely. We too are the inheritors when we follow those words of Jesus and strive to live out and do what he commands. We too are the inheritors when we open our eyes and our minds and our hearts to those around us, whom no one else sees or loves.
So, let us also be inheritors of the Kingdom of God. Let us love fully and completely as Jesus commands. Let us love our God. Let us love all those people who come into our lives. Let us look around at those people who share this world with us. And let us never cast a blind eye on anyone.
Let us do as God speaks to us this morning through the prophet Ezekiel: Let us “turn, then, and live.”