Nature’s Groaning Call

Isaiah 5: 1-7; Philippians 4: 6-9; Matthew 21: 33-43

Finally, some rain.  When I was out walking this week it felt more like walking through a desert it’s been so warm and extremely dry.  You know, more than anything, nature is used in the bible to often mirror to people what’s going on with us.  There’s been such a violent streak in weather the past month or so but also with us.  It’s as if nature is groaning within, letting us know we have a problem.  Now when I say it has something to mirror to us I don’t mean it in a televangelist kind of way, like Pat Robertson who again went off these weeks not only about weather but about the killings in Las Vegas.  It’s a distorted image of God to think that God somehow wants to smite us, which should make us question whether it’s God at all.  We do enough smiting ourselves. 

So if there’s anything that the tenants of the vineyard do wrong it’s that they cut themselves off, distance themselves from the land.  They begin to think that it’s theirs and they are somehow entitled to it, have the right to it, know better than the landowner, possess and control it.  They no longer need the landowner they can do it quite fine themselves, so they think.  They no longer even recognize the landowner in the slaves that are sent or for that matter, the son, who come in the landowner’s image and likeness.  They don’t see it necessary for themselves so they certainly won’t in the others.  Cutting themselves off from the land not only distances themselves in that way, they separate themselves from the landowner themselves.  It’s about them.  It’s about what they want.  And once the son is sent they believe the landowner is out of the picture all together and they finally have the power they want to possess.

Now they’d all be familiar with the story Jesus tells because it’s pretty much given word for word from the reading from Isaiah today.  Everything is going great for Israel, so they think, until it’s not.  They too separate themselves from the land, each other, and their God, the Creator, but they aren’t aware of it until it’s time for harvesting only to find wild grapes.  It would be no surprise to the audience Jesus has today that the story wasn’t going to turn out in their favor.  If you sow wild grapes, take advantage of the land and try to possess it, no longer seeing it as a gift, then expect wild grapes, expect violence, expect separation and war.  We reap what we sow and if we sow violence and hate, then like the Pharisees and elders of the people voice in today’s gospel, it will lead to a wretched death.  They abandon each other, the land, and well, quite honestly, if we go that far then most likely we’ll abandon the Creator, the landowner as well.  It’s inevitable.

Paul too finds himself separated from the community but not by choice.  He’s imprisoned but not even the walls of prison are going to cut him off from his source of life.  Paul speaks of a very different way of life, one rooted in peace and free of anxiety, a life free of violence.  Despite his own difficulties at this point, Paul continues to return to the source of life, the landowner per se, who allows him to persevere and model a different way of life.  For Paul, it’s all about gift.  It’s not about possessing or owning, nor about rights and entitlement.  For Paul all is gift and it shines through in this very poetic verse we hear today from him.  He sees not only his own life but the life of others, the land, and all he has been given as gift and he a mere steward.  It’s a life that doesn’t forget that he’s connected to someone bigger than himself and he keeps returning to be nourished by the Creator but even as he sees the violence that has ensued against him and humanity in his own time and from his own hands.

Nature has a great deal to teach us and for three weeks now we have found ourselves wandering through the vineyard with Jesus, often with some harsh words.  If we fail as tenants to the land and each other, forgetting our truest identity, it will all be taken away and it will feel like a horrific death and letting go, even feeling violent at times.  Violence just seems to be a part of who we are and what we’re capable of in this life.  We’ve seen that violent streak in nature, reminding us of hearts that hurt and that have become arid.  We’ve allowed ourselves to be separated not only from this Earth but from each other, often feeling no need for the landowner anymore.  We can do it ourselves, thank you.  But we also see what happens when we do.  Now more than ever we need the landowner and to remain closely to the Creator to soften our hurting hearts so that they no longer resort to violence, but rather to be filled with the heart of the Creator, one of love, peace, compassion, and reconciliation for all of God’s creation.

 

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God’s Way

Isaiah 55: 6-9; Phil 1: 20-24, 27; Matthew 20: 1-16

This is a rather unusual gospel we hear today and some proof that God really does have a sense of humor as to what we think is important in life.  All of us have been indoctrinated into a capitalist system, everyone of us.  We know what the rules are and what to expect.  We often know how to take advantage of it and when it takes advantage of us, even at the expense of others.  We want what’s fair.  Whoever works the hardest gets the most in return.  Whoever works the least gets their share but not as much as others.  We know the system.  But the passage was never meant to be a critique of such a system.  It was more a critique of the culture.  However, in the age we live, that system of capitalism has creeped its way into religion as well and certainly a part of Christianity in this country.  It’s about winners and losers.  It’s about who’s deserving and not.  It’s about whoever works the hardest should get the most returns.  In other words, we think it’s about us.

But it’s not.  This is where we get it wrong because as much as we feel we might have to prove all of that to our boss, God isn’t our boss.  As a matter of fact, God’s trying to work for us and through us more than anything.  Isaiah tells us today that our ways aren’t necessarily God’s ways and our way of thinking is not necessarily God’s way of thinking.  That we can be thankful for.  At the same time, we feel the plight of the workers who have slaved all day in the heat.  We’ve been there and we’ve seen people get treated better than us and it immediately begins to poke holes in the system.  For Matthew it was the early Jewish community that had been around all along and they were seeing the special treatment of the Gentiles who were converting.  Like most parables, they’re meant to turn things on our heads, to try to see our own lives, including our failings, through the lens as God sees not as we do.

As much as it’s not a critique of the system it is a critique of our lives that have become consumed by the system.  For Jesus, he was constantly butting up against a similar system that divided folks into greater and lesser.  It wasn’t just about the early community feeling this way.  For Jesus, it was the distaste of the Pharisees that he often had to confront.  They saw him hanging with people that they considered less than for one reason or another.  They saw themselves and deserving and entitled and if Jesus wanted to make a difference, he was going to have to hang with those who considered themselves the respectable members of the community, not sinners nor fishermen.  We’re better than that.  We’re deserving of better treatment.  Don’t you know all we do?  God’s not our boss and we have nothing to prove.  We may have to work like that in our lives, but really shouldn’t, but not with God.  Isn’t even funny how the generous landowner makes sure they’re all there to witness the generosity.  No hiding but in the process of this generosity to deeper truth is revealed, hearts that were closed off to seeing each other for who they are rather than what they did or didn’t do.

Even some of the prayers we use at Mass have language like that that just sends the wrong message.  We use words like merit and attain in our opening prayer.  In our language and in this capitalistic system, those words connote a way of thinking that isn’t of God.  As Matthew’s gospel reminds us, this God is an abundantly generous God who is constantly giving when we allow ourselves to be open to the grace, to the forgiveness and love.  Like they did with Jesus, we sometimes become jealous and envious because we think God has somehow blessed others better than ourselves, somehow someone less deserving than ourselves got something and we didn’t.  That’s where the system has infiltrated our faith.  We’ve associated the things we’ve accumulated as somehow a grace from God.  But you know what?  Eventually that’s all taken away when we begin to question what’s most important to us, what we value and we begin to see how little opening we have in our lives for God’s true grace that frees us from the systems that we often make into our own gods.

Paul sees it as a choice.  For Paul it was a matter of life and death and for him, when you choose God you always choose life even if it means martyrdom.  He finds himself in prison, and although we will be freed this time, he knows if the choice is to be martyred he will go with it rather than giving up what he values the most.  For Paul, the simple desire was to be open to the Gospel.  You know, even for Paul the greatest threat was calling to mind and making others aware of how they had become attached to something that was only benefiting a few.  More often than not Paul had to call out his own communities for falling into the traps of the world rather than being open to God’s thinking and God’s way.  For Paul, the choice was easy.  You choose the relationships, the values, love of God and neighbor, over using people for our own gain.  It’s what the system feeds on when be buy into the illusion that all benefit when we know full well it only benefits some and poverty continues to grow.

No, it wasn’t meant to be a critique of the system.  It was a critique on how they treated one another, especially the new folks that come later to the game.  It’s not about us but it is about us and how we become consumed by it in all aspects of our lives, even in the way we see God, the big boss in the sky, cracking the whip, working us to the bone, and so on.  But that’s not God’s way and that’s not God’s thinking.  Thank God.  We pray for the grace to be aware in our own lives of where we are feeding into and buying into the system as it tries to work us to death, somehow proving our worthiness and creating divisions.  My guess is we can never be totally free of it but we can be aware of it.  Once we’re aware, we can finally begin to let go of and be freed of all that our entitlements in life that prevent us from loving neighbor, caring about people, and being open to a generous God who’s always inviting us, as with Paul, a fuller way of life where we value what is most important to us.  Not an accumulation of things but rather a surrender of it all to an experience of life with greater depth and meaning.