Trinity Cathedral, Sacramento CA ~ October 6, 2002
The Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost: Year A
"Hear another parable", Jesus said. So begins our gospel lesson for this 20th Sunday after Pentecost - this first Sunday in October. And tell them another parable he did... a story of vineyards and tenants; of treachery and betrayal; of murder and mayhem. Sounds more like CNN than the Good News of Jesus Christ our Lord! So before we go any further, a few words of reassurance may be in order: I think there really IS Good News for us today in this vineyard saga. Good News about who we are and who we're called to be - but we're going to have to dig a little to get it.
Before we can glean what the story has for us today, we need to take a look at the context in which it was originally told. This part of Jesus' ministry if full of parables...stories about nature or human affairs that Jesus used to convey spiritual meanings. In this particular example, the story of the treacherous tenants is the second in a series of three parables Jesus told to the chief priests and elders in the Temple in Jerusalem just days be fore his arrest and crucifixion. The "Spiritual meaning" he was working to convey was pretty simple: he was calling the priests and elders to account for their stewardship of the "vineyard" God had given to them - their stewardship as leaders of the chosen people of Israel.
"When the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to these tenants?" Jesus asked at the end of his story. "He will put those wretches to a miserable death and lease the vineyard to other tenants," they replied. (Indicating they STILL didn't get the point. But they're about to!) Jesus replied: "Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom."
And there ends our gospel for the day. But listen to the very next verse: the one that didn't make it into the lectionary: "When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard him, they realized that he was speaking about them and they wanted to arrest him." And since we know the end of the story, we know that arrest him they did - and like the son in the parable, he was soon to be killed. Killed for the message he preached: the challenge he issued to those in charge: the inheritance we would have shared with all humanity... an inheritance they wanted to keep for themselves.
That's really what we're talking about here: and if you've ever been involved in a family fight over an inheritance you know how ugly it can be. But in this case the fight isn't over silver or china; stocks, bonds, or real estate... it's over the legacy of God's love and the promise of abundant life that is offered to all.
It's about who's in and who's out: and who gets to DECIDE who's in and who's out. Jesus' message was loud and clear: THAT'S GOD'S JOB! And so they killed him. Like the treacherous tenants who had taken over the vineyard and forgotten who owned it in the first place, the leaders of the religious institution had taken over the Covenant that God made with creation and used it for their own power and gain. Not a pretty story, is it?
But an all too human one. The irony is that the very church founded on the teachings of the One murdered because he dared to preach the Good News of God's inclusive love has sometimes fallen into the same trap; using its power and authority to protect its power and authority - forgetting that its task is to nurture the vineyard.. The garden... the creation ...as God's stewards.
Benedictine Joan Chittister has written: "As God's people in the world, we are required to go through life taking back one inch of the planet at a time until the Garden of Eden grows green again." That's the work Jesus was calling the chief priests and elders back to as he taught in the temple. That's the work he calls us to do today - the work of BEING the church - of gathering in all God's people into the vineyard God has trusted to our care. Young and old, weak and strong: the cradle Episcopalians and the never-been-here befores - gathered in together in order to gather others in. We cannot do that if we find our place in the pew or choir stall...or pulpit... and then lock the door behind us. That's the kind of attitude that generated the bumper stickers that were so prevalent in Oregon a few years ago during the mass exodus of Californians northward; "Welcome to Oregon, Now Go Home" We've gotten ours: now YOU stay out. Like the greedy tenants who hoarded the fruits of the vineyard for themselves, if we hoard the abundant fruits of God's blessings and love.. If we start to think they belong to us rather than to God... then Jesus' parable echoes down through the ages: "Not your job" he says. Think again. You be the church; leave the job of being God to God. So how do we go about the work of being that kind of church? Through word and sacraments. Through outreach and education. By taking back the planet one inch a time.. one person at a time. And by making sure that no one is excluded from the blessings we have received from being part of this household of God.
One of the best illustrations I can think of is this story told by author Robert Fulghum:
Giants, Wizards, and Dwarfs was the game to play.
Being left in charge of about 80 children 7 to 10 years old while their parents were off doing parenty things, I mustered my troops in the parish hall and explained the game. It's a large scale version of Rock, Paper, and Scissors, and involves some intellectual decision making. But the real purpose of the game is to make a lot of noise and run around chasing people until nobody know which side your are on or who won.
Organizing a roomful of grade-schoolers into two teams, explaining the rudiments of the game, achieving consensus on group identity -- all this was no mean accomplishment, but we did it with a right good will and were ready to go.
The excitement of the chase had reached a critical mass. I yelled out, "You have to decide now which you are: a GIANT, a WIZARD, or a DWARF". While the groups huddled in frenzied, whispered consultation, a tug came at my pant leg. A small child stands there looking up, and asks in a small concerned voice, "Where do the Mermaids stand?" A long pause. A very long pause. "Where do the Mermaids stand?" I say. "Yes, you see, I am a Mermaid." "There are no such things as Mermaids." "Oh yes there is, I am one!" She did not relate to being a Giant, a Wizard, or a Dwarf. She knew her category - Mermaid - and was not about to leave the game and go over and stand against the wall where the loser would stand. She intended to participate, wherever Mermaids fit into the scheme of things, without giving up dignity or identity. She took it for granted that there was a place for mermaids and that I would know just where. Well, where DO the Mermaids stand? All the Mermaids - all those who are different, who do not fit the norm, and who do not accept the available boxes and pigeonholes? Answer that question and you can build a school, a nation or a kingdom on it. What was my answer at the moment? Every once in a while I say the right thing. "The Mermaid stands right here, by the King of the Sea!" So we stood there, hand in hand, while the Wizards and Dwarfs and Giants rolled by in wild disarray. It is not true, by the way, that Mermaids do not exist. I know at least one personally. I have held her hand.
And so have I. I have held the hand of more than one who has come to this great church of ours... this Episcopal vineyard which has been entrusted to our care. I have seen the joy and amazement on their faces when they find there is not only a place to stand but there is a community to stand with them where the banquet table we set this morning is open to all, Giants, Wizards, Dwarfs … and Mermaids.
I have watched as the fruits of the Spirit have blossomed in their lives... love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Those, my brothers and sisters, are the fruits of the kingdom we are charged with producing in this, God's vineyard... a day at a time... an inch at a time... a mermaid at a time. So, let us be about that work with gladness and singleness of heart. Amen.
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