Calendar purists insist that only now are we entering the 21st century, since 2000 was really the final year of the 20th century. Whichever it is, I entered this new year thinking a lot about the fractious divisiveness that seems so evident everywhere in the world, and about its reverse, the precious but fragile unity of the human family.
In January 1990, as Operation Desert Storm was lighting up the skies over Iraq, I was asked to preach on Romans 13. When people refer to Romans 13, they are usually thinking of the first seven verses, which suggest that submission to the authorities, who have been placed there by God and given the “sword,” is the duty of every Christian.
There is a saying, “The English never remember, the Irish never forget.” The more sober truth is that everyone remembers and forgets selectively. Therein is a political problem that is well illustrated in Northern Ireland these days.
“I have resigned myself to the fact that there are some people in this life with whom I will never be reconciled.” I was 22 and a second-year seminarian when an older friend said this to me, and I was shocked. How could a faithful man, one who had taught me a great deal about Christian faith and life, be willing to give up hope?
The world is full of walls. Everywhere we go, there are fences, gates, partitions and other ingeniously constructed barriers—all aimed at keeping something or someone in and keeping something or someone else out. We need walls.
Desmond Tutu makes headlines, and often changes hearts and minds. In the fall of 2005, the headlines were made in Belfast, where Tutu, former Anglican archbishop of Cape Town, South Africa, was filming Facing the Truth, three programs for the Northern Irish BBC that aired in Britain on three consecutive days in March of this year.
In the mid-1980s I attended a church that still honored “Money Sunday,” a practice begun in the 1950s. Once a year members of the congregation gathered to make financial pledges to support missions efforts. As the pledges were collected, the minister would read the amounts aloud from the pulpit: “Here’s one for $50. . . . Here’s another for $100 and one for $1,000!” Occasionally a pledge came in for, say, $10,000, eliciting all sorts of approving oohs and aahs from the congregation.
Talk about unity amid diversity in the church can seem hollow, especially as people confront deeply controversial issues. The gossip in the halls of denominational assemblies recently has been about possible schisms over the issue of homosexuality. Fragmentation, not unity, seems the experience of our times.
"A man had two sons . . .” was a common way to begin a parable, especially one comparing good and bad sons. Matthew uses it to contrast one son, who promises to work in the vineyard but never shows up, with another, who at first adamantly refuses to go to the vineyard but later repents and goes (21:28-32). Which one did the will of his father, asks Jesus? Not the one who talked a good game, but the one who actually followed through with obedient actions.