Here is approximately what the good folks at St. Coffee are going to be in a position to hear tomorrow morning. It is notes only. But anybody who is stuck, FEEL FREE.
This morning’s readings, in the customary order in which we read them, struck me as being like one of the notorious television crime dramas in a way, where the story is introduced to us at a moment of crisis somewhere in the middle of the plot – then we have a flashback to carry us back to a previous situation, and finally we move through what we saw first, and all the action and the loose ends are neatly tied up just in time for the final commercial.
This morning, we need to start perhaps not with the Hebrew scripture, the Exodus reading, but with the opening of the Gospel story. One of my friends says, “it all starts the way a love-song might start: a man planted a vineyard” – we hear about an idyllic, perfect setting – then the music breaks, there is violence, accelerating and increasing, things go wrong and the wrong gets “wronger still” and at the very climax there is even a murder, with a corpse – we have everything here except sirens and flashing red lights.
But it all began with a love song, a song about a vineyard, a song anticipating and promising a feast – lots to eat, and lots of lovely stuff to drink, too. In some ways – I think – there is nothing quite as marvelous as making a feast for people you love, knowing that they will be delighted and gratified by what you have prepared, and will be happy. The act of doing that – like the act of putting in a garden, or planting a vineyard – means more than it is – it expresses a sense of connection, a relationship – let’s just keep it simple, here, and say that it expresses LOVE. But what happens when it goes wrong?
The story of God and his people, God in a relationship with people, does not start with the handing down of the house-rules. It doesn’t start with regulations – it starts with a love song, a setting that is not only a place but a promise of provisions – and that idyllic beginning is picked up in the Psalm, in the confident, glorious chorus of the opening verses (hard not to sing them) – “The heavens are telling the glory of God” – try not to lose your place, because we’re not quite finished with the Psalm.
I am hopping about among the readings because more and more as I untangle and reflect on Scripture it seems to me that the readings work TOGETHER – not just by simple repetition, or by simple verbal echoes, but because what is presented in each reading helps us see more deeply into the others. Kind of like ultrasound…it shows you more than you thought was there!
So things start to go wrong, in the love-song, and now we look at the reading from Exodus //the 10 commandments// now even here what we have is not just a handing down of rules: “here they are, memorize and obey these or you are in big trouble”…
The rules come second, as logical conclusions to something else – to what precedes them: “I am the Lord your God” – that’s not just God clearing his throat, you know – that’s God reminding them (and us) of what has already been discovered. “I am the Lord your God” which means that you’re my people, and I have done all these things FOR you, I have planted you a vineyard, I have brought you out of Egypt SO THAT NOW you are ABLE, CAPABLE of living like THIS – now if you don’t, of course, there are logical consequences (some of them sketched in), but the first thing you have to understand is that I have loved you and liberated you, and now you can live this way, you are FREE to live in this way, like truly free people: not having to steal, or lie, or cheat, or murder. BECAUSE I have done all these great things for you.
But we fail to get it. Over and over and over, we go back to slave-thinking, to a slave-perspective – the utmost ambition is to “get away with something,” to exercise the irresponsible power of oppressors, to BE oppressors; conniving, like the wicked tenants, in a way that inevitably means murder eventually.
So where are you and I, in this artfully told story? In the Gospel story, I think, we see ourselves in two lights. We may be the tenants; and we may be the outcasts.
We have to take the story seriously, altho’ Jesus was talking to the Jewish religious leaders, the “good church people” of HIS time. But we have to take it seriously for ourselves too – get ready for this kind of seriousness, because I think all the rest of Matthew between now and Advent 1 is exceptionally tough and gritty going//fire and brimstone//. So we must take it seriously, and not be smug or complacent about our “tenancy,” our “already” relationship with our God.
But then on the other hand, neither are we to be sunk into despair because we are not faithful tenants, or because we don’t feel like insiders, or because, just maybe, we think we deserve to be cast out. Now this is where Paul comes in//very artful// If we were watching a crime drama, Paul would be the guy in the lab, the geek who is fascinated by the theoretical aspect of what is going on, who gives us the schematic understanding of what we’ve just been told, he’s like the person who takes the back off the watch, and says, See? These are the works, the "innards" -- look at this story from THIS angle, from how we understand righteousness by LAW and righteousness by FAITH.. . and he’s excited by what this means, by what it has meant for him//and he's excited enough to use words a lot less dignified than ‘rubbish’//.
Someone has called this parable of the vineyard the most depressing parable in the whole Gospel. But Paul is here to keep us from agreeing with that assessment. Paul is here to say, “Keep going! The story may be over, but YOUR story is NOT over… Press on, and be hopeful and rejoice” //whether full of joy or bent double under disaster, a text for each of us.
So we conclude with rejoicing, because what we have been told about the patience and generosity of God IS wonderful.
We rejoice—maybe with just a little tremor in the voice, as we try so hard to remember that this is not just a story about avoiding a bad outcome; that the commandments we have heard are not just about what do we have to do to go to heaven – the creation, and the law, and the prophets, and the sending of God’s own son are about what we must hold in mind: our lives are about recognizing, and knowing, and loving the Lord our God, the owner of the vineyard. About knowing and recognizing and loving his beloved son.
And the consequence is that we remember to ask for power to do what all of creation does, what all of creation is for – and was for, and will be for // end of Psalm//The HEAVENS are telling the glory of God …may the words of OUR mouths and the thoughts of OUR hearts…