As many of you know, I spent part of my vacation last week with my 83-year-old dad, canoeing in Canada. My dad is a great storyteller, and last week he was full of stories about his years in business. The family business was a grain business in a small town in southwest Ohio, a business founded by my great-grandfather in the early 20th century. Do you know what a grain dealer is? You’ve seen these business, with their silos and tall grain elevators, out in the country and in small towns. Essentially, grain dealers are middlemen between farmers and big grain merchants, selling seed and fertilizer to farmers in the spring, and buying their crops in the fall to sell them to larger buyers. When I was a child, there were four prosperous grain dealerships in my small hometown of a few thousand people.
One of my dad’s stories this past week involved his grandfather’s dealings with two customers one morning. The first came in with his truck full of corn and said to my great-grandfather, “Well, Bert, I might as well let you cheat me as anyone else! What’ll you give me for my corn?” So my great-grandfather made an offer, and the farmer countered, and the haggling began. Eventually they reached a price.
Awhile later, a second customer arrived with a truck full of corn and approached my grandfather. “Well, Bert,” he said, “I’ve got a load of corn for you, and I trust that you’ll do the best you can for me.” They talked for a few minutes and, again, a price was agreed upon.
After that customer left, my dad said, “Grandfather, it seems to me that you paid that first man a little less than his corn was worth, and the second a little more than his was worth. Why is that?”
“You could be right,” said my great-grandfather. “I’ll tell you: That first fellow came in here filled with suspicion. He insulted me right of the bat, and it was clear that we were going to bargain over the price, no holds barred. So he set the tone, and my task was to bargain him down. And maybe I did get the price down a bit lower than I might have otherwise.
“But the second fellow, he came in here and said, ‘I trust you to do the best you can for me.’ He kind of put me on my honor, didn’t he? And so I probably did pay him a little more than I should have, because I was bending over backwards to make sure I did the right thing.”
Just a couple of transactions, a couple of out hundreds that took place that fall. But they say a lot about the different ways in which we approach one another, don’t they?
How do we as people of faith approach one another? How do we respond to one another? Which farmer are we? Which version of my great-grandfather are we?
This is one of the great subjects of the Christian faith: How do we treat one another? How do we care for one another? If you watched any of the pope’s speeches or listened to any of his homilies, you know that we’ve been hearing about this subject all week. Perhaps it says something about us as a country and about Christianity as a faith, that our newscasters and commentators have been so surprised and made so much of his openness to others and his insistence that we all extend ourselves to others, whether the topic be immigration, or the death penalty, or poverty, or interfaith relationships. Maybe we continue to struggle with this sort of openness, of extending ourselves to others, just as Jesus’ original disciples did.
In Bible study on Thursday, we addressed the same topic. We’re reading a book by Marcus Borg, The Heart of Christianity, and this week we were invited to think about how we respond to reality and to others. Borg says that we tend to respond in one of three ways: fearfully, indifferently, or openly. The disciples and Jesus in our story today certainly exemplify two of those ways: the response of fear, and the response of openness.
The disciples have, in a very short time, come to think of themselves as the elite, as Jesus’ special followers. They want to think of themselves as an exclusive group, as the group which understands Jesus’ teachings, which has found favor with Jesus, and which has the sole right to act on his behalf. And so they respond with fear, as adversaries, to others, who have been healing in Jesus’ name. They sound like little kids: they shouldn’t be doing that! They shouldn’t be healing people! We’re the ones who get to do that!
They draw lines: we’re in, you’re out. We’re in separate groups, on opposite sides, with different interests. They are not unlike my great-grandfather’s first customer: I’ve got to stand up for myself, because I can’t trust you to do that. The great theologian Walter Bruggemann refers to this as an attitude emerging from a conviction that we live in a universe of scarcity. There isn’t enough to go around. If people are going to be healed through the power of Jesus, we are the only ones who can do that. If there’s a harvest to be sold, I need to make sure that I get my share if the proceeds, because no one else is looking out for me. This is a scary world filled with limitations; it’s a threatening kind of place, and I need to be sure to defend what’s mine
Jesus has some harsh words for those whose actions are motivated by fear – some of his harshest words in the Bible: If you place a stumbling block before people, if your hand or your foot or your eye causes you to stumble – better that disaster befall you, or your body parts, than that you in some way block others from the deepening of life that I have to offer. Jesus in this passage is actually a lot harsher than Pope Francis has been this past week. Pope Francis has been emphasizing a “culture of care,” but Jesus goes right to the consequences of a culture of fear, of suspicion, of self-protection and self-defense -- and they are not positive consequences! Better that you get out of the way than that you limit the prospects of others for new life – whether those others be prisoners on death row, immigrants to a new country, the poor and disenfranchised, or those whose beliefs differ from yours.
If we are not going to be people trapped by a vision of scarcity, limited by our fears and barricade against what we see as threats in this world, than who are we going to be? How are we going to be FOR Jesus – who says to his disciples, those followers so confused about their role and so convinced that they should come out on top – Jesus who says, “Those who are not against us are for us.” Look for possibility; look for hope. Align yourself with a conviction that we are a people of abundance, not scarcity – that there is enough love, enough healing, enough care, enough life – for all. In fact, there is more than enough – there is an abundance!
Wasn’t that the approach of my great-grandfather’s second customer? “Do the best you can for me.” He came to work that day in a spirit of openness and trust, prepared to think the best of his customer, prepared to see grain business and famer as allies. And didn’t that in turn bring out the best in my great-grandfather toward his customer? Both men saw this as an opportunity for life – for profit, of course, because it was a business transaction, but also for kindness and fairness and dignity,
Isn’t that what the Pope has been talking about all week? The Catholic St. Ignatius, founder and father of the Pope’s Jesuit order, tells us always to presume the best in the other. Marcus Borg, author of our study, tells us always to anticipate and pursue what is life-giving.
And Jesus tells us today: Have salt. Be at peace with one another. Preserve the best in and for one another. Season and flavor your relationships with life, with hope, with caring – with possibility at its very best. Do the best you can for one another. Amen.
 Micah D. Keil’s Commentary in Working Preacher for September 27, 2015. http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2619
 Amy Oden’s Commentary in Working Preacher for September 30, 2012. http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1357