Saturday, October 7, 2023

Pentecost 19, 2023-A: Signposts to shalom

 Lectionary: Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20; Psalm 19; Philippians 3:4b-14; Matthew 21:33-46 

Sean gratos los dichos de mi boca y la meditación de mi corazón delante de ti, oh Dios, mi fortaleza y mi redentor. Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O LORD, my strength and my redeemer.

When I was preparing for my First Communion, I had to learn the answers to the hundreds of questions in the Baltimore Catechism. I studied the catechism with my Latina mother, may she rest in peace, who would frequently say to me, “You don’t have to believe that. Just memorize the answer in case the bishop calls on you.” Early in my spiritual development, my mother taught me to respect the rules of the church while also giving me permission to discern my own relationship with God.

The Episcopal Church has rules which we call canons. They guide our common life in Christ. Our forebears called their rules “The Law.” Given by God to Moses, the Law was meant to guide their common life and bring about shalom: a fullness of harmony between God, God’s people, and God’s creation. They were meant to be signposts, but they feared getting it wrong, so they made 10 rules into 613 to ensure they were doing it just right. No one could have kept all of those rules. No one.

Following the rules doesn’t keep us safe from wrong. It’s like the symptoms and the disease I spoke about last week.

Where there is sin, there is a disruption of our right relationships - our righteousness - with God and one another. That is the disease, the dis-ease which is, according to the dictionary, “a disordering of structure or function.” (Source: Apple dictionary)

When we see murder or coveting or dishonoring of elders, when we don’t make time to be in the presence of God, or when we use God’s name to curse someone or invoke fear in them, falsely claiming divine power as our own, we are seeing symptoms of the disease - the disruption of righteousness – and we know we’ve sinned. Knowing that we can repent and return to the Lord.

In our Bible study this past week, someone said, “Context is everything.” Taking that to heart, I want to offer a little context for our gospel reading today. Today’s story comes after Jesus’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem on the foal of a donkey, his very public overturning of the tables in the temple and cursing of a fig tree. He cured the blind and the lame as the people cried out “Hosanna to the Son of David.”

When Jesus returned to the temple the next day, the religious leadership ask by what authority he does all these things. Jesus answers, I’ll tell you IF you can tell me whether the baptism of John was of divine or human origin. When they couldn’t answer him, Jesus refused to answer them. Instead, he began to tell parables, a common rabbinical teaching technique, only Jesus was a genius with them.

This second parable, the parable of the wicked tenants, is a scathing judgment by Jesus against the religious leadership and their followers. There is so much symbolism in it, so let’s take a quick review: 

  • the absent landowner is God 
  • the vineyard is a common metaphor for the nation of Israel 
  • a watchtower is built which means God is keeping continual watch over the people 
  • the slaves represent the prophets, about whom Jesus laments later in this gospel “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing? (23:37) 
  • and finally, the tenants are the people of Israel and their religious leaders who kill even the landowner’s son 

What should this landlord do with these tenants? Jesus asks.

The religious leadership reply that according to their rules, ‘They should suffer a miserable death, and the land should be leased to someone else – someone who will give the owner the fruits of the harvest.’ Jesus has led the religious leadership to declare judgment on themselves – and once they realized it, they were steaming mad. But they couldn’t kill him because of the crowds.

Also in this parable, Jesus identifies himself both as the son (ben) of the landowner and as the cornerstone (eben) using a direct quote from Psalm 118, which the religious leadership knew well: “The same stone which the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone.” (:22) As he did with Psalm 22 from the cross, Rabbi Jesus uses the fullness of Psalm 118 to point to the amazing things God is about to do through him: opening the gates of righteousness, overcoming death, and bringing salvation.

Another important thing to notice about this parable is that, like the parable of the two sons that preceded it, this parable is inclusive. Jesus doesn’t condemn the religious leadership or their followers to exclusion from the kingdom of God, but he does take from them their purpose and gives it to another people. The word Jesus uses here is ‘nation’ – and it would have meant ‘Gentiles’ to his listeners.

This new Gentile people, he says, will produce fruit for the owner to harvest. This was always predicted, though. As Isaiah prophesied, it is too small a thing for you to restore only the tribes of Jacob and Israel… “I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.” (49:6)

The Jewish people knew all along that they were God’s chosen, and that salvation would be extended one day to everyone. Jesus is letting them know that the time is now, and he is the one inaugurating it. Still, it can be hard when you’ve been the only child, to allow new siblings into the family. It’s especially hard when those new siblings are those you have traditionally despised or feared.

But, as we know, God is the owner of this vineyard, not us, so if we want to be faithful tenants in our day,we might look to St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians where, in three simple phrases, Paul shows us how to get there: 

1. “I want to know Christ [he says] and the power of his resurrection…” How do we come to know Christ? We pray, but when we pray do we remember that God is always more ready to hear our prayers than we are to pray them? Do we remember that God’s plan for us is more than we can ever ask or imagine? Do we pray to a loving heavenly parent or to a fearsome judge waiting to smite us for every mistake or infraction of the rules? 

As a parent, my heart would break if I thought my kids were too afraid of me to come to me for comfort or in their time of need. We don’t hate or punish our kids for making mistakes – even big ones. We guide them. That’s exactly what God did giving Moses the 10 commandments to be our signposts, our guidance.

If we want to be of that mind, then we must pray, making time for a Sabbath for our souls. The true benefit of prayer is not that we get what we want, but that it re-sets our minds and our hearts, aligning us to God’s will and we get what God wants. 

2. “forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal…” God’s mercy and forgiveness set us free to let go of what was and move toward what could be, what God desires for us, for our neighbor, and for creation as a whole. In other words: shalom.

This is why the psalmist proclaims that the law of God revives the soul, rejoices the heart, and gives wisdom to the innocent. As Jesus said, it is to those who come to God like innocent children that the kingdom of heaven belongs. (Mt 19:14)

3. “because Jesus Christ has made me his own…” In Jesus, we have all been made siblings in the family of God. We are God’s own, cherished, and beloved in all our imperfection. This should give us cause to celebrate and it is this celebration that is our evangelism – the good news we have to share.

Didn’t see that evangelism twist coming, did you?

Despite what you may have heard, the purpose of evangelism isn’t to save anyone. Only God can save and Jesus already did that “once for all.” (Ro 6:10) Neither is evangelism about convincing anyone of anything. That freedom of choice, offered by God, extends to all.

For us, evangelism is done the St. Francis way – preach the gospel always, sometimes use words. We preach the gospel (which means good news) by what we do.  As Jesus said, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples if you have love for one another.” (Jn 13:35)

So, it is by living in right relationship with God, one another, and all of creation as Jesus did, that we embody and proclaim the good news of salvation in Jesus Christ, the good news that we are never alone, never forsaken, always beloved, forgiven, connected, and provided for by the One who is Unity in Trinity.

So, I offer you what my mother offered me: permission to respect the rules while also discerning your own path to shalom. While you’re at it, feel free to break the rules of traditional evangelism, trusting instead in the love, mercy, and grace of God, then celebrate the good news we have to share – that Jesus has already saved us, reconciled us to God, and calls us to share that good news by living as if it were true. Amen.

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