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.


More Than Meets the Eye

Wisdom 9: 13-18; Philemon 9-10, 12-17; Luke 14: 25-33

The heart of the readings this weekend really comes from Paul’s letter to Philemon. It’s the only time we ever hear from this letter. It’s most likely the shortest of all of them. It’s also one of the most heartfelt we hear from Paul as he writes on behalf of his friend and brother, Onesimus.

As the reading points out, Onesimus was a slave and at some point had escaped and run away from his rightful owner. In the time of doing that, he not only encounters Paul but he encounters Christ through Paul and now, in the short clip we hear today, he’s pleading on his behalf as Onesimus must now face the consequences of leaving Philemon but he returns in a new way. I’m sure it doesn’t take away the anxiety of the experience of having to return to his master, his owner, but he does return a new man.

His story, though, is also our story. Like Onesimus, we begin to believe everything we want to tell ourselves about ourselves, even in his case, that his whole identity is a slave and this clouds the way he relates to everyone. He sees everything through that lens. Over the course of his time with Paul, Onesimus begins to learn that there is more to himself than just the fact that he is a slave. Now certainly he will return to Philemon remaining a slave, but no consequence, despite his own anxiety, can stand in the way of what he has found in his time with Paul and his encounter with Christ. No, we may never understand Onesimus entirely, but we can begin to think that all we do and all we tell ourselves is true of who we are. Like him we begin to believe that all there is to us is that we’re a priest, or a teacher, or a doctor, or for that matter, mother or father. Yes, they are roles we play. Owner is a role Philemon plays and it too taints his lens in the way he relates to Onesimus. But there’s more to all of us.

Now it is rather bizarre, this gospel we hear today, when Jesus seems to once again throw some strange stuff our way. I got to say, if he were running for president he’d probably have to hire a new campaign manager after the past few weeks! But when he speaks about hating father and mother, brother and sister, he’s not meaning it in the way that we use that word. Even in our families we can fall into our roles, but we know as we get older that even the way we relate to them should change and grow with us. Jesus is gently trying to lead the disciples to this place of context in their own lives, all these relationships in the context of their relationship with him and with God.

Like Paul’s own conversion story, scales often must fall from our eyes and hearts before we can begin to let go of, what Solomon tells us in the first reading today, that which we find within our grasp we find with difficulty. What’s more difficult than the relationships that we encounter in our lives, especially when we can’t move to that deeper place and see the other on a deeper level, through the eternal, in Christ. If you’re going to commit yourself to the relationship to Christ, then you do it with your whole heart. He warns of doing it with half a heart in the telling of these stories today.

Even in our most basic of relationships, we learn to let go of what we think that they should be. It’s again what Paul helps Onesimus discover in his own life, even in the way he relates to himself. He no longer has to see himself as slave, but rather as friend and brother. Paul’s prayer is that Philemon can and will do the same upon the return of Onesimus. Yet, in the end, it no longer matters to Onesimus because he has found the eternal and grows in deepening that relationship with Paul and in and through Christ.

It’s not just the material possessions that we so often need to let go of in our lives. Quite honestly, that’s the easy stuff. There’s so much we have convinced ourselves that we need that not only get in the way of our relationship with Christ but the people around us. The question we so often need to ask ourselves is what and even who is possessing us? That’s the much more difficult question for all of us. All too often we can find ourselves in a relationship like Philemon and Onesimus, thinking we own another and possess them or vice versa. That stands in the way of the eternal. We are possessed by our thoughts, our ideas, our fears and anxieties. They stand in the way of moving to the deeper reality of our lives. We are so often possessed by our should’ve’s, could’ve’s, and would’ve’s. They most certainly stand in the way of encountering the eternal and the deeper reality of our lives.

What and who is it that is possessing us these days? Like Onesimus, we pray for an encounter with Paul, an encounter with Christ in our lives that we can learn to let them go so that we not only grow in our relationship with Christ, but we begin to grow in our relationship with the other, no longer seeing them through the lens we’ve created for ourselves, but like Paul as brother, sister, and friend.