Sunday, September 28, 2014

God's Vineyard

Matthew 21:33-46

On Monday morning we left the house early.  I was headed off to a conference and my mother decided to tag along to visit her sister for a couple of days.  (If you don't know this yet, my mother moved in with me on Labor Day.  No doubt, that is the subject of another 'story,' but for now let me say that all is going well.)

The car was packed up and we were doing one last walk through to be sure nothing had been left behind.  There was plenty of food and water for Shadow, my cat, for a couple of days. Windows were closed and blinds drawn.  Just before we walked out the door, Mother walked back and closed the door to her room.  Her thought was to keep the cat out of there while we were away.

On Tuesday at about 5:30 p.m. I received a text from a friend who had promised to stop by to move the garbage cans to the garage, to bring in the mail, and just for good measure, to check on Shadow. The text began: "Just found Shadow locked in Kathleen's room..."  (Our plan to keep her out had failed.  Obviously, she was already 'in.') She went on to write that she had picked up the earrings that Shadow had used as playthings. And she cleaned had up the most obvious results of a cat being locked in a room for 35 hours. 

Now if you have a cat, you know how they can seem to 'own the place.'  Shadow, in particular, is not
as amiable as some cats.  She doesn't take well to strangers, particularly if you move quickly.  Sometimes, especially under stress,  she will even hiss at me --- forgetting, simply not knowing, or just not really believing, that she really does owe her entire 'way of life' to me.  I provide the shelter, the food and water, and the fresh litter in her box.  I am even generous with special treats.  I pet her when she lets me and I try to be sure she doesn't get locked in places away from her food and water and litter box.  All she has to do is 'live there.'  One would think she would 'get this.'  She does not.  And I'm pretty certain that even her time inadvertently locked in my  mother's room this past week did nothing to remind her of the certain truth that, in fact, she would be lost without us.  In fact, you can see her here, having taken over my bed as though it is her own...

It's easy to see it with a cat or a dog or a child, even, for that matter.  Sometimes, it seems, it's not so easy for the rest of us to comprehend.

Now, of course, the parable Jesus offers now is told in the extreme.  One cannot help but be outraged at the criminal behavior of the tenants as he describes it and them now.  For those of us listening in it is obvious that the owner of the vineyard has done everything to make their 'ways of life' possible.  He has planted the vines, placed a fence around it, put in the wine press and built a watch tower to protect it all.  To be sure, the tenants are doing the day to day work, but none of that work would be theirs to do if someone else hadn't made it possible.  One can hardly believe it when they  murder not just one envoy of slaves, but two.  When the owner's son meets the same fate, we find ourselves shaking our heads that those tenants could possibly believe the inheritance would then somehow actually be theirs to receive and enjoy.  As though the owner could forget what was done to him.

Yes, the parable Jesus offers now offers an extreme image.  And yet, it is also so for you and for me.  We forget that we are simply 'tenants' here.  We fail to remember that everything we are and everything we think we 'own' are just on loan to us.  These homes, acres, jobs, congregations, children, spouses, communities --- even our very bodies --- were created by God and given to us for this little span of time. And yet, how often do I behave as though it all 'belongs to me?'   In a sense am I also not 'taking the lives of those sent to collect the rent' whenever I live as though it is all mine?  Indeed, the flip side of that is that every day I fail to entrust it all to God, I am also taking on far more than I am intended to hold.

It is a hard word we hear today.  It is an important word.  And while it may not seem like it at first, it is also a life-giving word.  You and I are here because of God's generosity and God's tender care. God planted the vineyard.  And put in the fence.  And the wine press.  And the watch tower. God has given us all that we need. All we are asked to do is remember that.  It is God's Vineyard.  It is all gift.  And even the remembering of this is meant to be a gift.

On any given day, all I have to do is look at my cat, Shadow, to remember how ridiculous it is to believe otherwise.
  • How do you hear Jesus' parable today?  Does the fact that he paints such an extreme picture make it easier or more difficult to apply to your life?
  • I have made the parallel with my cat to help me understand  Jesus' words now.  What example might you use from your experience?
  • It is a hard word that Jesus offers now.  It is also meant to be a life-giving word.  How does the understanding that it is all a gift from God bring you life?

Sunday, September 21, 2014

"The Will of the Father..."

Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32

Matthew 21:23-32

So much time has passed since then.  Even so, I still offer this story with no small measure of pain.

We stood around her casket on a rainy Christmas Eve forty years ago.  It was just my mother and dad, my three sisters, my grandfather, and me. There was no visitation for receiving the care and comfort of friends.  There was no pastor to speak a word of light in our darkness, a word of comfort to our sorrow, a word of life as we faced death. 

I was in the 7th grade.  Though my grandparents had only moved to Illinois as my grandmother's health declined the year before, I knew that church was not part of her life. I did not know why, for it was never talked about. I was left to conclude that she was not a person of faith and in my then black- and-white, 12-year-old's faith, I reasoned that now, as a result, she must now be in hell.

I agonized over it, worried about it, wept at the thought of it, but I never spoke of it for fear of upsetting anyone.  It affected me deeply though.  Oh yes, even though the prophet Ezekiel is standing firm in the certain truth that our futures are not determined by our parents and grandparents, the proverb quoted there:  "The parents have eaten sour grapes and the children's teeth are set on edge" still rings true.  We are shaped and changed by those who have gone before us.  Without a doubt, it surely matters how we live our lives --- for our own sakes, of course, and for our contemporaries --- but also for the sake of those who come after.

I was well into adulthood before I heard the story behind the story.  Even my dad, her oldest son, did not know the reasons why until then.  He heard it from his sister whose mother had confided in her in her last years.
  • Why did Beulah speak with such bitterness about the church?
  • Why did she insist that her children be educated in the Catholic tradition, but never darken the doors for Mass herself?
  • Why was her special disdain reserved for certain normally respected and respectable residents of the town in Massachusetts which was her place of growing up and raising a family of her own?
This is why.  In 1933 Tom  Clark, my dad's dad, died from a stroke. He was 40 years old. They had a comfortable life until everything was lost in the stock market crash a few years before and in those last years of his life, Tom had been scraping by, doing his best to provide for his wife and two small sons.

When Tom died he left behind Beulah, who was not yet 30 years old.  My dad, Tommy, was five.  His little brother, Rodney, was three. At his death, Tom Clark's small family was left virtually penniless.  And so Beulah took the only job she could get: selling magazines and cigarettes at a small downtown newsstand. She had no protection and found herself at the mercy of others. And so it was that for the rest of her life she would not forget that certain pillars of the community and the church ---  married men with families of their own --- did not hesitate to make advances towards her.  I cringe to think of it now --- how very painful and frightening this must have been for her. And without a doubt, her distress was compounded by this --- that their 'witness' to her was that the faith they professed seemed to have no bearing on their behavior when they walked into that shop.  It would appear that their example was that of the son Jesus describes today who heartily and eagerly said yes to their father, and then somehow forgot, failed, and did precisely the opposite of what God would want. 

Beulah never did get past it. And forty years later her granddaughter, not knowing the whole story, wept in fear for her soul.

Oh yes, it matters what we do.  It matters how we live our lives in all the places we are privileged to live them. 

Of course it is not as though any of us can ever get it completely right.  Neither of the sons described in Jesus' story today got it right.  For one said 'yes' and then proceeded to not do it.  And the other shamed his father by saying 'no' before he got around to doing what he should.  It's not that we won't fail. But that shouldn't keep us from trying.  That shouldn't stop us from doing what we can to 'get it right' for the sake of one another and for the sake of all those who come after.   Oh no, that shouldn't stop us from yearning after the new heart and new spirit which leads to life as Ezekiel promises today!

There is a lot going in in today's Gospel lesson.  By now Jesus is in major conflict with the chief priests and the elders. I can't blame them for being distressed at Jesus' actions and accusations.  (Remember that in Matthew's telling, just before this tense exchange he has violently cleared the temple of the money-changers.)  Perhaps I would react in much the same way that they did.  At the same time, I have been on the other side of the equation as well.  I have known --- at least from a distance --- the consequences of being an 'outsider' to the faith like the tax collectors and the prostitutes Jesus speaks of now.  I try to stay in touch with that ache even now.  It makes me less certain, of some things, yes.  At the same time, I think it also makes me more open.

If I had never known Grandma Hunt's whole story this may not have been so. I might still be worried about her apparent lack of faith. But then I learned about the pain that put her in that place.  And while, like all of us, she certainly bore some responsibility for this, ever since then I have wondered at how that struggle shaped the rest of her life. Imagine what a difference it could have made if just one of those who had attempted to take from her what was not theirs to take --- if even one of them who had forgotten that Beulah was a child of God: so very loved by God and meant to be honored as such --- Imagine if just one of those had later apologized.  How might it all have been different if only one had turned back and tried to make things better?  Don't you suppose that one would have been doing the 'will of the father?'  Even if it came late?  For that matter, I can't help but think that if Jesus were telling the story, maybe, just maybe, Beulah preceded all the rest into heaven itself.  This side of joining her there of course, I simply won't know.

In this meantime though, I find myself less likely to judge, less confident in my conclusions: especially about ultimate things.  Unlike my seventh grade self, I trust that to God even as I try to remember that what I do and say matters.  Even to children I may never meet.

  • I expect most of us can think of times when we have been like both of the sons in Jesus' parable today.  Where have you seen this play out in your experience?
  • Since Jesus' words are directed at people like you and me, it may be hard at first to find the 'grace' in this story: at least for you and I who profess belief but don't always 'live' it.  What do you think? 
  • For me there is some comfort in the understanding that what appears to be absolute, not always is. For instance, Jesus reminds us that those least likely, by our standards, to 'enter the kingdom of heaven first' are those who actually do. I, for one, am grateful to leave such as this in God's hands.  How about you?
  • It may be an unusual tying together of the prophet Ezekiel's words and Jesus' teaching today.  I think it worked in the story I offer, but there are, no doubt, other ways to do so.  What are your thoughts? 

Sunday, September 14, 2014

On Night-Crawlers and God's Vineyard

Matthew 20:1-16

 I was out on my early morning walk today.

It had rained most of yesterday, and so there were still night-crawlers on the pavement --- forced out of their underground homes.  I never see a night-crawler on the ground without being taken back to when I was 10 or 11 years old and such as these were summer's gold.

For you see, when we were kids, this was how we earned our vacation money.

My folks set up the 'business' for us.  They went out and bought an old refrigerator and plugged it into an outlet in the garage, where the bait was stored by the dozens in paper cups and tin cans. They even had a professional sign painted --- white with red lettering --- which announced that night-crawlers could be had for 75 cents a dozen.  It leaned against the maple tree out in front of our house.

And so it was when it would storm, we would be out in force --- all four of us --- with flashlights and buckets.  Forty years later I can remember it like it was just last night, the gentle, persistent technique it took to take a hold of those overgrown worms who had come up for air and get them into the bucket in one piece.  And the crick in my neck from bending over like that for long minutes at a time. Funny, it didn't bother me then --- not the feeling of the night-crawler or the dirt beneath my fingernails.  I think I would be more squeamish now.

And then vacationers and others on their way for a week-end's early morning fishing would pull into our long driveway and offer to purchase a dozen or two.  And seventy-five cents at a time the money would pour in --- stored for the time being in a German beer stein whose home was on the top shelf in the kitchen.   The week before our annual family vacation would begin, we would take down the stein, pour the money out on the table and divide it into four equal piles.

Here is what strikes me now, especially as I consider the story Jesus tells today: I don't remember there ever being any debate about it.  None of us ever accused another of having captured fewer worms and thus being somehow less entitled to an equal share of the coins and dollar bills in the stein.  More than that, it's altogether likely that on any given night, one or another of us was not out there. Even so, in the end, we all got the same.

It could have been different, of course.  And normally in life it is.  We expect to get paid for what we do.  We don't expect another will be paid the same for doing less.  And I suppose it's easier when we are children before we find ourselves so dependent on our earned wage for actually paying for life's essentials. Even so, I think back on that time and find it unusual, for it reflects precisely the opposite of what plays out in the parable Jesus offers now.

For of course the world doesn't work like it did on South Main Street in the 70's or in Jesus' parable now.  In fact, I expect that most of us can relate to those who had been out there early and who had labored hard through the heat of the day.  It comes as no wonder that they were unhappy with those who didn't bother to show up until later, but in the end, received the same wage that they did.

And it goes without saying that it's really not fair.  Just like in a family where all are loved and valued equally, nobody gets to be loved more --- not even if they work harder.  Or if they've suffered more.  Or if they've achieved greater things.  Or obeyed more completely.  No, in the world Jesus describes, the owner of the vineyard sees them all the same.  In the world I grew up in, moms and dads loved all the same.  Just as God does.

And oh yes, the vineyard and the payroll belonged to the owner of that vineyard, after all.  In the same way, my folks owned the land from which the night-crawlers crawled out as well as the refrigerator and the garage that housed it. They purchased the sign that advertised our live bait and they made sure the electric bill was paid every month.  It really was all theirs. They just gave us a share in it on stormy summer nights.  Again, like God does, don't you think?

For t is so in the Kingdom of God as well --- and perhaps, from time to time, in the world where God's people seek to be part of making that kingdom come.  For it is, first and last, all God's isn't it?  I wonder what it would look like if you and I were to start to act like that were so, don't you?  I wonder what it would look like if you and I began to live as though the last were actually first, in the words of Jesus now.

You know, this happened to me in a small way today.  I found myself traveling from a graveside service to an unexpected hospital call out of town.  It was noon.  I was hungry and so I did what I seldom do any more, I drove through McDonald's.  Now I didn't order much. In fact, I had $3.39 pulled out of my wallet ready to hand the young woman at the drive up window.  When I pulled up she slid the window open and laughing with glee she announced that the person in front of me had paid for my meal.

Now in my experience, one never gets that kind of over-the-top glad greeting from folks at drive up windows.  It was pure joy for her to tell me that my meal was free.  Not because I earned it or deserved it.  But only because I happened to be next in line.

Now don't you think you and I would also have a great time being part of something like that?  And yet, of course, we get to be part of that all the time.  For you and I are called to announce to the world that the greatest gifts God intends for us are ours just because God wants us to have them.  God wants you to have them.  Even you who showed up late in the day.  Whether you're first in line or last in line.  Even you. Even me.

  • I offer the example of our childhood night-crawler business as a parallel to what Jesus offers now.  What examples can you think of which would parallel Jesus' story?
  • I wonder how it would play in our communities, our neighborhoods, our congregations if we actually lived as though the last were first.  Indeed, what would this look like on the football field, in the classroom, at the office, at church committee meetings, or, for that matter, in our national immigration policies, don't you?  Think for a moment about who 'the last' are in your world.  How might this parable be lived in a way which would actually change their world?
  • When have you found your status changed from 'last' to 'first?'  How did you react?  What would it be like to be able to offer that gift to another?  When do you see yourself doing so next?

Sunday, September 7, 2014

John 3:16

John 3:13-17

You knew it, too, of course, the reference above.  Oh yes, we know it by heart, those of us who have followed this path of faith.  Indeed, we know it so well I expect that we hardly pause to take in its import much of the time.  But stand still in this with me for just a moment.  How is it possible that God's love for us would be so great that God would give what was most precious to God's heart for our sake?  For you and me and this broken, hurting world.

On the one hand I want to say, well this is God, after all.  God has strength beyond what I can imagine. And, well, God knew the 'ending,' if you will. And yet, wouldn't that take something away from the gift?  If God didn't love it, love Jesus, so much watching him suffer and die simply broke his heart... if this were not so, wouldn't that lessen the value of this unfathomable gift in some way?

We had such a day yesterday.

It started last Monday with the unimaginable news that a beloved member, a key leader in our congregation, a life-changing teacher, a cherished wife and mother and grandmother had suddenly died. She was always a careful driver, and yet her mind must have been elsewhere that morning, for she drove into the path of a semi on a country road.  And the world changed then for all of us and we were plunged into grief --- where we still are.

We shared in Debra's memorial service yesterday.

And last night, I was called upon to pray at a Vigil for Drug Overdose Awareness.  I had been asked to do so by a still grieving mother.  I officiated at her son's funeral nearly a year ago.  Since then she has given her life to doing what she can to ensure no one feels the pain of the loss she has felt every day since the day he died.  She did not want him to have lived and died in vain.  Last night she told his story.  Her mourning is not done.  It seems it may never be.

This time around, the brightness of these first September days have been clouded by the grief of others as well as my own.

And so I can't help but remember that if you and I experience such heartbreak with the loss of those we have so loved, how very much God gave up --- how very deeply God must have grieved as well --- to send his only Son to us.  And to stand by and watch the unthinkable, the unspeakable, done to him.

To be sure, this is a great love.  This love God holds for you, and for you, and for you is far beyond anything we mere mortals can comprehend or begin to emulate.  That God would give God's Son to suffer death that we might live.

There have been many heart-wrenching moments in these last days.

Often, at funerals any more the family will want someone to speak --- to tell the stories which evoke such precious memories.  This was so yesterday, too.  Only as is often the case, sometimes those who wish to share are just too close to be able to share their words.  In those times I offer to read their words for them.

The memorial service was at 1 p.m. yesterday.  At 12:45, Debra's daughter, Megan, handed me a piece of paper.

And so a few moments later when we turned to Family Remembrances I stepped forward with Megan's words.  I only had time to glance at the page briefly before we began.  I share just a tiny part with you now:
My mother was not afraid of much, but I am sure she was scared in that moment.  My only wish would have to have been there to comfort her and wrap my arms around her and reassure her she was loved to the moon and back by myself and so many others.   
And oh, isn't this always our greatest fear. That those we have loved so much would know such unfathomable terror.

A few minutes later when I stepped into the pulpit to preach, I felt it must be addressed. I spoke the truth then, that I couldn't help but share her worry about what those last moments must have been for her mother.  We would want nothing more than to protect those we have loved from such as this.

Now what I spoke next I said because I believe it must be so.  And so I said so and before and since I have found I have kept repeating it into my own need to hear it, too:

God's great love for Debra --- and for any other of God's beloved in a similar time and place --  God great love would have meant that even a moment of terror was instantly overshadowed by such joy that it was forgotten almost before it was experienced.
I believe this.  I have to believe this.

And no, I don't believe these words of Jesus speak only of the life to come.  I think that this promised eternal life surely begins now and is experienced in wonderful times of great joy and gratitude and generosity and hope.

But there are other times, too.  Times like these when this promise brings such comfort.  When we stand on the edge of a mystery we cannot comprehend, and we know and trust that God stands on that other side with arms extended and heart wide open. 

We were surely shown what that looked like in Jesus. 

John 3:16.  We know it by heart.  Oh, may our hearts know it fully today and always.

  • For many, this verse is a treasure.  Is it for you?  Why is that?
  • How is it possible for you to hear something so familiar in ways that are new and fresh?
  • How great is God's love for you and for this world?  With what might you compare this love?  is anything comparable?