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Sunday, October 8, 2017

A Tale of Two Vineyards

Proper 22A: Isa. 5:1-7; Matt. 21:33-46 St. Paul’s, Smithfield, 10/8/2017
Jim Melnyk: “A Tale of Two Vineyards”

Today we’ve heard two parables that mention vineyards; one from the book of Isaiah, which addresses problems with the vineyard itself; and the other from Matthew’s gospel, which actually addresses the tenants of a particular vineyard.  Although vineyards are in both parables, the stories are about two different topics.  Perhaps we should start by saying what the parables are not about – because both have been misused throughout the history of the Christian faith.

Neither parable is about the Promise being taken away from God’s People, Israel, and given to someone else.  Neither parable is about God forsaking God’s people.  Both parables have elements of judgment – yet both parables have hints of God’s grace – hints of God’s favor – hints of God’s love for us – as well. 

In Isaiah’s parable we know the vineyard is Israel, God’s beloved people, and we know from the rest of the story that even after exile there will be a return.  In Matthew’s parable, despite the harsh reality of the cross which looms on the horizon, the self-giving love of Jesus is God’s promise that will bring new life.

Isaiah’s parable is pre-exilic in nature.  That is, it’s being told to God’s people who are still living in Jerusalem – who have not yet experienced the exile.  The Northern Kingdom has fallen to Assyria, but Judah – with Jerusalem at its heart – is still holding off the challenges of Babylon.  Israel is God’s vineyard – and the people of Judah are God’s pleasant planting – those whom God brought out of slavery in Egypt into a new land so long ago.  But the leadership of Israel – the monarchy and those attached to the royal court – have come under God’s judgment for acting unjustly.  “The types of injustice noted by Isaiah include a failure to defend the weak (1:23), an accumulation of wealth for themselves (1:29), the suppression of the poor (3:14-15), and the deprivation of rights of the innocent (5:23). God expects Judah to use their privilege to stand for the weak and vulnerable, but they instead use it for injustice” (Min-Ah Cho, Sojourners Online, Preaching the Word, 10/8/2017). 

 God, according to the Prophet, has looked at the powerful in Judah expecting justice, and has seen bloodshed.  God has looked at them expecting righteousness, but has heard the cry of the poor and the dispossessed instead.  Exile will be the outcome for a nation that has struggled to be faithful to their calling as God’s people.  Yet the promise remains.

Centuries later Jesus is seeing trends in Jerusalem that remind him of Isaiah’s day.  In Matthew’s parable the vineyard is still Israel.  But this story isn’t about Israel as a whole, or about Judaism versus Christianity.  In fact when Jesus tells the parable for the first time there is no such thing as Christianity.  Even when Matthew puts the story to paper decades later, the early stirrings of Church are still understood by most as a division within Judaism. 

This story in Matthew is actually about those who have been raised up by God to lead the people – those raised up to be the ones who tend the vineyard that is Israel.  Or, to mix our metaphors a bit with another traditional image used time and again by the prophets – they are the shepherds charged with caring for Israel, their flock.  Either way, too many of the leaders had failed at their calling, causing God’s people to struggle with what it means to be faithful to God. 

Jesus’ story and his challenging question about the fate of the wicked tenants is, like Isaiah’s parable centuries before, a call to conversion.  “Both Isaiah and Matthew suggest that the way to conversion is to focus on the neighbor, to be able to see God as the face of the homeless, as the [face of the] poor, as the [face of the] abused [and broken, and the chronically ill – as the face of those experiencing so many other harsh realities of life].

For [those of us who know what it means to be privileged in so many ways], this means becoming more aware of a responsibility to the weak and vulnerable, rejecting the temptation to insulate [ourselves from a world in need]” (ibid). In other words, both parables remind us of God’s commitment to us; and they remind us to live as God calls us to live: living lives in faithful relationship with each other, with the stranger among us, and in faithful relationship with the God who creates us and who gives us life.

Central to Israel’s understanding of her relationship with God is the creedal statement from the Book of Deuteronomy known as the Shema: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone.  You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise” (Deut. 6:4-7).  

 Central to Israel’s understanding of her interpersonal relationships with neighbor and foreigner alike is a statement from the Holiness Code in the Book of Leviticus: “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord…. When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God” (Lev. 19:18, 33-34).

It was therefore not a great stretch for Jesus to point to the passages from both Deuteronomy and Leviticus in response when asked which command from Torah was the greatest. The two, love for God and love for our neighbor, held in tandem which each other, define the whole of our relational existence.  What’s more, as we come to understand more clearly the source of those two great commandments, we also come to know, understand, and reflect God’s great love for each of us as God’s own pleasant planting in the vineyard.

And so it is no wonder we chose a rather simple way of saying these great truths as our stewardship theme this year.  “Love God.  Love Your Neighbor.  Change the World.”  You see, our theme is about conversion as well.  Our theme is about how we choose to live out our lives of faith in our homes, in our parish, in our communities, and in this world.  How each of us chooses to live our lives has an effect on this world.  And as people of faith we are called to join with God not only in our own personal transformations into the likeness of Christ, but we are called to join with God to help bring about the transformation of this world into the kingdom of God.

Transformation is a challenge – and we won’t get there in the blink of an eye.  But as the Apostle Paul reminds us, “Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own…. I press on towards the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 3:12, 14).

Whatever our choices we make in this life, we must be aware that both parables we heard read today apply not just to the leadership of Israel during the lifetimes of Isaiah and Jesus, but they apply to us as well: the choices on our part to yield wild grapes or yield good grapes, the choices to live out our lives, or support choices by others, which yield bloodshed and a cry; or choices and ways of living which yield justice and righteousness for even the least among us.  The choice to be unfaithful tenants of what has been entrusted to us by God, or faithful tenants who work to see the vineyard – see the kingdom – thrive.  And after the madness in Las Vegas this past week it’s obvious we have choices to make as a nation, and still have a long way to go.

What will we do with the incredible gift of grace we have received from God?  Because how we choose to love God – or not; and how we choose to love our neighbor – or not; will indeed, one way or the other, change the world. 

Sunday, October 1, 2017

“Love God, Love Your Neighbor, Change the World”

Proper 21A: Matt. 21:23-32 St. Paul’s, Smithfield 10/1/2017
Jim Melnyk: “Love God, Love Your Neighbor, Change the World”

This Sunday we find Jesus immersed in debate with the chief priests and elders who are questioning the authority of his teaching.  When challenged by his detractors, Jesus responds with his own challenge – “Did the baptism John practiced come from heaven or from human imagination?”  Score one for Jesus. 

You see, they can’t answer what they suspect might be true – that it was from heaven – because then they’ll have to explain why they had refused to believe.  They can’t answer the way they want it to be true – that it was all a figment of John’s hyperactive imagination – because the crowds all believe John came from God, and they’re afraid they’ll have a riot on their hands.  It’s like they know Jesus put a “kick me” sign on their backs, but they can’t get it off.

Then Jesus asks them, “What do you think?” and they’re probably saying to themselves, “But I don’t want to think – not the way Jesus wants us to think!”  “What do you think,” Jesus asks.  “A man has two sons. He says to the first, ‘Go out into the fields and work.’  The son says, ‘No, I’m almost up to level 84 on Legend of Zelda – gotta keep playing!  Maybe tomorrow.’  But a short time later he changes his mind, hits pause on the game, and heads out to the fields.  The father asks his second son to go out to the fields and work.  The second son says, ‘Sure thing, Pop! On my way now!’ and then heads into town to spend the day with friends.  Which of the two did their father’s will?” asks Jesus.

Well, the chief priests and the elders who have been trying to bait Jesus into some sort of theological faux pas are shaken.  And rather than refuse to answer they respond rather meekly, “The first son.”  They don’t want to do so, but it’s the only possible answer. 

The Greek word used in conjunction with the son who blatantly resists the will of his father at first can actually mean “regret” or even “repent.” The first son, who resists his father’s will, has a change of mind, or a change of heart, and is obviously more faithful than the one who talks a good talk, but in the end never lives out what he promises to do (Bill Brosend, Conversations with Scripture: The Parables).  Jesus’ challengers convict themselves by recognizing the faithfulness of the first son – the one who had repented.

Now, I’m pretty sure they aren’t the least bit happy with what Jesus says next, “Tax collectors and prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you – for they heard and believed John, and recognized their need for repentance.  You also heard John, and did not believe.”  Now, an interesting thing to note, here.  Jesus tells the leaders that the so-called bad guys will go into the kingdom of God “ahead of you,” not “instead of you.”  They still get in! Just not at the front of the line. And even that should be Good News for those of us who realize we’re not always on our best game.

Those who constantly stand in opposition to Jesus and his proclamation always have a choice to make.  They, like each of us, can choose to isolate themselves from the love of God made known to them in their faith tradition, or they can hear the Good News and embrace the love of God found so clearly, and pronounced so boldly, in both the Torah and the Gospel.  In the end, it’s all about the choices we make.  Talk is cheap.  Actions speak louder, and more profoundly, and more truthfully, than words.

Like the brothers in the parable, the chief priests and the elders, confronted with Jesus, have choices they can make.  And like them, we are free to make choices with our lives as well.  Brother David Vryhof, a member of the Society of St. John the Evangelist, reminds us, “Every time we make a choice we are turning some deep and inner part of ourselves into something a little different than it was before. We are slowly turning this inner part of ourselves into something that is in harmony with God and with God’s purposes in the world - or into something that is contrary to them. Each of us at each moment is progressing one way or the other” (Brother, Give Us A Word, 9/27/2017).  Going back to the parable about the two sons, it’s all about how we live out our calling – it’s how we choose to act – it’s about how our actions speak so much more clearly and honestly than our words.

This year the theme for our Every Member Canvass is “Love God.  Love Your Neighbor.  Change the World.”  When you think about it, the phrase is shorthand for the Great Commandment with a hopeful outcome added at the end.  It’s also shorthand for our Baptismal Covenant, isn’t it?  And it’s quite similar to the blessing I so often use – in part because I heard Presiding Bishop Michael Curry use it so much when he was our Diocesan Bishop.  “Go forth into the world in peace.  Be strong and of good courage.  Hold fast to that which is good.  Render to no one evil for evil.  But love the Lord your God: love your neighbor; and love yourself.”  Who we are as people of God – who we are as stewards of the faith – who we are as followers of Jesus – can be summed up in the words of that blessing – and can be summed up in the words of our theme for this year.  As a colleague of mine has said, “Judgement Day is not going to involve SAT scores and résumés, but showing the dirt under our nails…[that  choosing] is about our actions, not our words”  (Brosend).

So, we might ask ourselves, “What does Love God, Love Your Neighbor, Change the World look like for each of us?  I’m guessing we might have a plethora of answers – many very similar to each other, and perhaps many very different, perhaps in some ways even contradictory. 

For me it involves seeking to allow the Spirit of the Living Christ the freedom to shape me and move me in how I live out my life in the world around me.  To be more caring.  To be more loving.  To be more generous with the currency of the kingdom of God – willing to pass along forgiveness, goodness, and grace – even when a good part of me wants to be stingy about it all.

What does it look like – what does it mean for you?  I want to ask you to do something after the sermon, or after the service today.  In your bulletin, at the back of the church and in Lawrence Hall, you’ll find some index cards. There are pencils in the pew racks, and markers at the back of the church or in Lawrence Hall.  Take a minute in the silence after the sermon, or before leaving church, to write a sentence or two – or even just a phrase or a word – about what it means for you to love God, love your neighbor, and for you to work to change the world.  You can write more than one card.

You can put your name on the card or not, it doesn’t matter.  You can leave your card on the table at the back of the church or by the poster in Lawrence Hall.  We might use a few comments in our stewardship brochure – and use the rest to make a poster for everyone else to see…. It’s up to you...

I think it would be cool to see in writing what our hearts, minds, and spirits say to each of us when for just a few seconds, or even a minute or so, we hit the pause button long enough to write down our thoughts.  If we take a moment to share with one another the choices we’re willing to make – if we share with one another how we are each being called to love God, how we are each being called to love our neighbor, and – in the end – how we each see ourselves called to help change the world!!