Year A, Proper 22 October 8, 2017 The Reverend Dr. Brent Was
“… this was the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes.”
That is from our Gospel reading this morning. It is Jesus quoting Psalm 118 to the chief priests and Pharisees.
And from the Prophet Isaiah, “…he expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry!” These are parallel stories, Jesus’ parable of the Wicked Tenants (sometimes called the Parable of the Absent Landlord) and the Song of the Vineyard from Isaiah. Two stories of how good it can be and how bad it can be.
It is good to be here this morning. The flu is rough. I’m feeling much, much better. Thank you for the thoughts and prayers and for the chicken noodle soup. And thank you to everyone who helped make last week so successful, the youth Sunday and Blessing of the animals. Thanks!
One of the critiques I sometimes hear about my ministry is that I can come across a bit like chicken little. “The sky is falling! The sky is falling!” One bit of feedback from the parish conversations that the Stewardship ministry held this summer was that sometimes things seem “too sorrowful.” I can see that. I call it solemn, that’s the Episcopal/Anglican way of describing it, but I hear you. There was also a comment on the solemnity of my tone with a different take. “It is mournful, but I feel mournful.” Cause you see, I do think the sky is falling. Every family, every person in this room has tragedy, suffering, brokenness in your life. Everyone. Our city is rife with poverty, addiction and violence. And our nation? the world? I know the media generally only reports on the bad, but they do have a lot to report on, don’t they?
Being in bed for a week can color the world darkly, so when I woke up on Monday morning and read about Las Vegas, Lord have mercy, I had this cascade of feelings. I distinctly thought, “The sky is falling! This is it happening.” A bit later I pulled out the lectionary to read for this week and something struck me. The sky is falling, I stand by that assessment, but maybe the sky has always been falling. It’s been falling since, I don’t know, the Fall! The history of human kind is a history of the sky falling. Wars, feudal lords, empires, slavery, famine. Our salvation history, Christianity’s core narrative is a story of God’s constant and consistent love for the creation, for us; and, God’s constant and consistent call for us to return from the exile that sin has forced us in to. It’s God’s call for us to stop pulling the sky down on top of ourselves. That is Sin! This world could be a paradise for everyone, “…a vineyard on a very fertile hill.” as Isaiah puts it. A world where everyone took only what they need, where everyone was aware of their impact on others. It could be that way. Everyone could always be kind, could always be generous, and forgiving, and most usually are, but some are not, and all of us sometimes are not kind or generous or forgiving or any of the other virtues God desires in us. That is just true. Why? Why aren’t we always as virtuous as we should be? Because we have a choice not to be and the sinful path, the path away from God is too often the path of seemingly least resistance. “Oh Lamb of God, that takest away the sins of the world, have mercy upon us.” The sins of the world… That’s how Christians explain why things are not as good as they could be, why we are not. The sky is falling. But it has always been falling. What do we do with that? Lash out? Fight back? Crumble inward and give up? Keep your head down and muddle through? Ignore it and think about something else? What do we do with the fact that the sky has always been falling? Perhaps the Parable of the Wicked Tenants offers us a vision.
It is familiar, right? The landlord leased the land to some tenants. When it came time to collect rent, the tenants didn’t want to pay, so they beat one of the slaves who came to collect, killed one and stoned another. The landlord sent another party to collect rent and it happens just the same as the first time. “Finally he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’” But they don’t. They seize him, throw him out of the vineyard and kill him. Then Jesus asks, “What will he do to those tenants?”
So the traditional reading is that the landlord is God. The Vineyard is Israel. The tenants traditionally were the Jews, which was used as a proof text for much of the anti-Semitic sentiment fomented by the church. The Nazi’s cited this text. (The Isaiah one, too). More true to the text, though, is that the tenants were the leaders of the Jews, the chief priests and Pharisees. The slaves were the prophets and the son was Jesus. God gives the vineyard to the leaders to tend, but when it was time for them to honor their responsibilities, they reject the prophets, then killed God’s son. Pretty simple. And then what would God do? “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants…” Pretty clear, right?
Well, not exactly. It is not Jesus who says anything about wretches and miserable deaths, which are in line with the destruction described in Isaiah. This was the Pharisee’s answer to Jesus’ question. That’s what they thought God would do to the tenants. Jesus quotes the Psalm about the rejected stone being the cornerstone, “the Lord’s doing, and it was amazing in our eyes” and all of that. I’m not going to get into that part of the parable because today, a day when the sky continues to fall, we need to concern ourselves with the landlord, with how God deals with these wicked tenants.
The landlord sent the first slaves and they are beaten and killed. Does fire rain down upon those tenants? No. Then more slaves are sent, who again, are beaten and killed. Now does retribution come? No. That is what was expected, but that was not what happens, that is not what the landlord, God does. The landlord’s/God’s response to this escalating violence was not violence, but what? Vulnerability. Two sets of debt collectors are killed… historical precedent, conventional wisdom, that feeling in our gut all say “Send in the cavalry!” But the landlord’s/God’s response is not “Send in the cavalry!” but is, forgive me this pun, “Send Him to Calvary!” God appeals to their humanity but sending them someone vulnerable. God’s response to violence is not more violence, is not punishment, it’s this vulnerability. You want to hit me on this side, here’s the other, too. You want to take my coat? Take my shirt, too. You want to make me carry your bags for a mile? I’ll carry them for 2. You are going to steal from me and kill my slaves? Here is my Son.
There is a story I ran into in preparing for this sermon; it might be true, it is a good story. In the early 1980s, King Hussein of Jordan got word that some generals were meeting to plan a coup against him. He learned where they were meeting, so he got into his helicopter and went there. Arriving, he told his people that if they heard gunfire, to leave, and he went in, alone and unarmed. The king met the generals and said “I hear you are planning a coup against me. If you are, just kill me and get it over with. Don’t kill any of our people or put them through the trauma of a coup.” Not only did the generals not kill him, the story goes that they fell to their knees and kissed his feet, so blown away they were with the courage he showed in his vulnerability. (It didn’t say what happened to those generals. As the old joke goes, the lamb may lie down with lions, but the lamb never gets a good night sleep).
This is Dietrich Bonhoeffer on the scaffold. The marchers on the Pettis Bridge in Selma. Archbishop Romero at the altar. It is Christ on the Cross. And it is meeting your nightmare of a mother-in-law or your scheming co-worker or alcoholic brother not with anger or disgust, as understandable as those responses might be, but with kindness, with vulnerability even. Being vulnerable can remind people of their humanity. It can engender empathy. Being in the presence of vulnerability can help some people feel a bit of well-deserved shame for their behavior.
I had a conflict going on with some people very close to me that kept getting worse and worse. I wanted to scream at them. I wanted to cut them out of my life. I wanted them to feel the pain that I have felt. But for whatever reason, and against at least half of my will, that’s not what I did. Praying on it, a lot, might have helped. Instead I wrote a letter about how I was sorry for how I had hurt them, and that they had hurt me and that I was sorry about that, too. I expressed that I have (gasp) needs of them, needs that I can’t satisfy without them. I was vulnerable. And that conflict, years of it, the bitterness, it just dissipated. Mist lifting from the trees as the rains return. Almost miraculous.
We all have tragedy in our lives. We all suffer from one thing or another, or, for many of us, from many things. And we all live in this dog-eat-cat-eat-mouse world… it is hard, this living thing. What Jesus is teaching us, in this parable, in the whole of His blessed life and sorrowful Passion, is that if we respond to the savage world we live in in kind, all we’ll get is more savagery. And as many of you know a family dinner table can be a savage place. We are called by God in Christ to meet evil not with evil, but with love, and one of the ways love can be shown is in admitting our own vulnerability.
Now that is not to say that if someone is hurting you that you respond with open arms, with more physical or psychological vulnerability. No. The kindest, most loving thing you can do is to take care of yourself and anyone else being hurt. And a key step in taking care of yourself is being vulnerable enough to know that you need help, and getting it. In doing that, you might not be the only one to be given a chance for salvation.
When the light fades, when the world bears down on you, when the sky seems to be, or actually is falling, as it maybe has been for a long, long time, we can meet it in kind, or we can take a different way, a way of vulnerability, which is the Way of Jesus Christ. And yes, that does lead to the Cross. And yes, it does lead to Resurrection. All we have to lose is our lives, or at least our lives as they are. AMEN