Dinner with the sinner

Proper 21 (September 28, 2008)
Common Lectionary Texts:
Ezek. 18:1-4, 25-32; Ps. 25:1-9; Phil. 2:1-13; Matt. 21:23-32

This week Cindy visited Youbla, a small community in northern Jordan where MCC supports the work of the local benevolent society that is busy changing lives. The society runs a kindergarten for 4- and 5-year-old children and helps farmers make a living by growing pomegranate trees. MCC is helping to build canals to channel water from the village spring to valleys where the trees grow. Cindy returned from Youbla with a bag of delicious fruit!

Young Youbla pomegranates on the tree. Jordan's best!

Daryl traveled to New York City for a meeting with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. This was the fourth meeting MCC has hosted with President Ahmadinejad in an attempt to build bridges of understanding between the United States and Iran.

MCC and the other host organizations received many angry letters and calls protesting the meeting with Iran’s president, who is known for his controversial statements about Israel and the Holocaust.

The fact that this year’s meeting included a meal with the president was disgusting for some. Eating together is a reminder of our common humanity. Outside the Manhattan hotel where the meeting was held, hundreds gathered to protest. Some held placards that read, “Dinner with the sinner” or “feast with the beast” or “dine with the devil.”

President Ahmadinejad (center)

Inside the hotel, the atmosphere was considerably calmer. Several hundred persons –Christians, Muslims, Jews and Zoroastrians — gathered to talk about how people of faith can play a constructive role in addressing global problems like poverty, war and international tension.

Arli Klassen, MCC’s executive director, began her remarks by outlining the purpose of the event: “We have come here because as people of faith, as people who have all been created by God, we believe it is possible – not only possible but required of us – to find ways to build understanding and peace between us.” She lamented the U.S. contributions to the tension with Iran. But she also appealed directly to President Ahmadinejad to change the way he speaks about the Holocaust; to state publicly and unequivocally what he has said privately — that he supports a one-state political solution to the Israeli-Palestinian, not a military action; to allow Iranians to make their own choices as to which religion they will follow; and to be transparent and open about all of Iran’s nuclear activities.

Patty Shelly, a Bible professor at Bethel College gave a powerful summary of how Anabaptist peacemaking is rooted in the life and teachings of Jesus Christ. Her remarks were followed by Jewish and Muslim perspectives on peacemaking.

Doug Hostetter (MCC UN Office), Ron Flaming (MCC International Program Director) and Ed Martin (AFSC), after meeting with Iranian president

Miguel D’Escoto Brockmann, President of the 63rd General Assembly, asserted: “We must accept the truth that we are brothers and sisters.” God has chosen us to be co-creators, to help God “finish the painting,” he said.

In his remarks, President Ahmadinejad noted that God is just and opposes oppression. Therefore, humans should also be just and oppose oppression. He said prophets are “the embodiment of those who fight injustice.” He reminded the crowd that the United States accounts for one half of global military spending and challenged those countries who engage in wars, efforts of expansion and acts of aggression.

Canadian church leader, Jack Suderman, with Mennonite Church USA leader, Iris de Leon Hartshorn

The Common Lectionary readings this week are about transformation – from walking in our ways to walking in God’s ways.

The prophet Ezekiel reminds the people of God’s claim that “all lives are mine” (Ezek. 18:4). For this reason, we are to repent, turn from and cast away all our transgressions (vv. 30-31a), “get a new heart and a new spirit” (v.31b) and “to turn and live” (v. 32b).

The psalmist also appeals for transformation. “Make me to know your ways, teach me your paths. Lead me in your truth, and teach me” (Ps. 25:4-5a).

In the Epistle reading, Paul urges us not to look to our own interests but to the interests of others (Phil. 2:4). Furthermore, we are to have the same mind that was in Christ, who humbled himself to the point of death. The good news is that, ultimately, it is not about us. It is God who is transforming us “to will and to work for God’s good pleasure” (v.13).

In the Gospel reading, a father asks two sons to go work in his vineyard. The first refuses but later goes. The second promises to go but then does not. Jesus’ point seems to be that God is looking for transformation which results in obedience.

As is so often the case, this week’s Lectionary readings offered timely counsel. How does transformation take place between peoples and nations who have a history of fear and mistrust? Is it possible to build bridges of understanding with those who make us afraid and angry?

The Lectionary readings remind us that transformation begins with us. Only as we repent from our own sins is God able to give us a new heart and spirit. Only as we recognize our own need for change are we inclined to beg God: “Make me to know your ways, teach me your paths. Lead me in your truth…” Only as we seek the interests of others and humble ourselves as Christ did can God’s transforming power work within us.

This week’s “dinner with the sinner” served as a powerful reminder that we are often quick to seek to transform the other, and slower to remember our own need of transformation. As religious leaders, we saw ourselves speaking prophetic words of challenge to President Ahmadinejad. He also saw himself as a prophet – chastising the United States and Israel about their practices of domination.

When one sits down for “dinner with the sinner” it’s not always so easy to remember who is the sinner.

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