Sunday, March 25, 2007

BCP - Lent 5 C - 25 Mar 2007

Saint Bartholomew's Church, North Augusta, SC
Brother Bernard Delcourt, OHC
BCP – Lent 5 C - Sunday 25 March 2007

You can listen to this sermon on St Bartholomew's website under Sermons.

Isaiah 43:16-21
Philippians 3:8-14
Luke 20:9-19
Psalm 126

O Eternal One, Source and Completion of all that is,
May your abiding Love guide us and enlighten us.
May the scriptures that we muse and ponder on today open our minds and hearts. Amen.


Jesus loved to teach in parables. They are a wonderful way to open minds and hearts to new meanings. A parable tells us an apparently simple story. At the same time, a parable unveils a moral principle lying deeper than the narrative. Some parables may be more layered than a casual listener may notice. Other parables may be so familiar that we actually have an automatic reaction to them. We hear the first few words of it and our mind jumps to what we remember the parable to be about. In effect, we’ve been so exposed to that parable that we have a tough time letting it speak to us afresh.


Today’s parable comes down to us similarly charged with accepted meaning and loaded titles. Let’s take the titles, for starters. They were added liberally by bible editors at any time in the history of bible publishing. They don’t come to us from the original writers of the bible books.

Today’s parable is known by titles such as “The Parable of the Wicked Tenants” or “The Parable of the Corrupt Farmhands”. If Hollywood were to title its movies like that, no one would go to see them; they would have given the plot away with the title!

Giving a headline is a time-honored way to editorialize a story. A good headline gives the tone and maybe even the moral of the story. Ask any tabloid editor worth her salt and she’ll tell you how important headlines are to her trade.

But her broadsheet newspaper colleague wants to let the story speak for itself; have its own impact. As a result, the broadsheet editor will keep the editorial content to pages intended for this commenting and judging.

When the varnish of editing is removed, you can discover a new layer of meaning and sharper emotional content in any text or media content. One version isn’t absolutely better than the other; but each version brings a different focus to the same subject.


Well, similar editorializing has happened to the bible. And often it has become part of what we think the bible says. It is important to become aware of that and to try to expose ourselves to what editorializing there may be in the versions of scripture that we use.

In the case of the story told by Jesus to the crowd in the temple at Jerusalem, we have two types of editorializing that have attached themselves to the parable. For one, we have the give-away titles I referred to a moment ago. And then we have the traditional interpretation of the parable.

The traditional interpretation of the vineyard parable -- here’s a more neutral title for it, by the way – is that it is a summary of the history of salvation up to the blossoming of the Jesus movement. This is a powerful interpretation that completely makes sense once you report the story that Jesus told on that day after his death, after his resurrection and after the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in about 70 CE.

That traditional interpretation of the vineyard parable goes something like this: God prepares Israel’s homeland (the vineyard), God entrusts the people of Israel to its leaders (the tenants), God expects Israel’s righteousness in return (the landlord’s share of the crop), when that righteousness is not forthcoming, God sends several prophets to restore it (the landlord’s slaves), the prophets are ignored or abused, finally God sends God’s own son to make sure that Israel is restored to its covenant with God, the son is abused and killed in the hope of keeping control of Israel, God comes to wreak vengeance on Israel’s leaders (the murderous tenants) and transfer its leadership to new leaders (the Jesus movement of our early Christian history). I will come back to this interpretation in the end.


So let us re-visit today’s parable from the perspective of those present in the temple’s courtyard on that day when Jesus is teaching by telling a story. We are the common people and the religious elites standing separately in the courtyard. We are listening together to this Galilean preacher who has recently come to Jerusalem to much acclaim. What we know of this Jesus of Nazareth is that he is a common man who speaks with natural authority and whose recent ministry has spawned many wondrous stories that circulate ever more insistently.

Those of us who are the elite are concerned that Jesus may be a troublemaker that would upset our comfortable arrangement with Herod and the Roman occupier.

Those of us who are the common people are full of hope and expectation that this guy might change the status quo. Some of us may even entertain the thought that he will foment an uprising.


Now I want us to refresh our minds with the story that Jesus is telling. This time, let us have Eugene Peterson, the translator of The Message version of the bible tell us the story. The Message is a contemporary language paraphrase of the bible. It attempts to be as close to the original language as possible.

Luke 20:9-16
Jesus told another story to the people: "A man planted a vineyard. He handed it over to farmhands and went off on a trip. He was gone a long time. [10] In time he sent a servant back to the farmhands to collect the profits, but they beat him up and sent him off empty-handed. [11] He decided to try again and sent another servant. That one they beat black and blue, and sent him off empty-handed. [12] He tried a third time. They worked that servant over from head to foot and dumped him in the street.
[13] "Then the owner of the vineyard said, 'I know what I'll do: I'll send my beloved son. They're bound to respect my son.'
[14] "But when the farmhands saw him coming, they quickly put their heads together. 'This is our chance—this is the heir! Let's kill him and have it all to ourselves.' [15] They killed him and threw him over the fence.
"What do you think the owner of the vineyard will do? [16] Right. He'll come and clean house. Then he'll assign the care of the vineyard to others."
Those who were listening said, "Oh, no! He'd never do that!"


So, here’s where I offer another way to look at today’s gospel and the parable that it features. I will contend that in today’s parable, Jesus is upsetting both of his audiences in the courtyard of Jerusalem’s temple. First, the common people think they hear a story vindicating their economic and political exploitation under the Roman Empire and its puppet, King Herod. That’s the story up to the beating of the last emissary slave.

Second, the well-to-do religious elites wonder whether they hear good news or bad news. That’s when the story shows the owner himself coming to punish the murderous tenants (restoration of the public order) and then gives the vineyard to other tenants (abolition of the current religious hierarchy).

You see, ever since Isaiah and the Psalmists, the vineyard is a metaphor for God’s agreement with the religious elites to be the ones who build up Israel in righteousness and love of God. The vineyard reference hasn’t gone unnoticed to the priests, scribes and elders of the Temple.

I contend that Jesus is upbraiding every one within earshot in the temple court; the people and the elites. He is mirroring to them all how their focus on their greater material comfort and political advantage rather than on justice and love of God is bringing them to violence and oppression.

Now that’s a message that we can apply to any human society in any time of history, including our own present time. So let’s ask ourselves. How does our way of living contribute to injustice and lack of love? Is it our consumerist / materialist way of life, our stewardship of the earth’s resources to our overwhelming benefit? Is it our passivity in letting capital punishment and war being waged in our names? How deep is our love for justice and our neighbor?


In concluding this exploration of the parable of the vineyard, I’d like us to notice that both the traditional interpretation and the contextual one I offered you last don’t exclude one another. Both work, both are there for us to ponder.

Isn’t that amazing? In addressing pressing issues of his own time, Jesus also managed to paint a prophetic picture of God’s work beyond his own time and that of his listeners. Our God is a God of deep wonders…


Let us pray:
Dear God, Unlimited Source and Completion of All,
We ask that You keep our minds and hearts open to the multiple meanings and messages of the scriptures you inspired. We ask that you keep our minds and hearts open to what our life has to teach us. Build us up in love and justice. Expand our understanding of who this neighbor is that you want us to love as You love us and as we love ourselves. May our love expand until we live and breathe for the greater good of every one of the billions of neighbors you gave us on this wondrous planet.

Wednesday, March 7, 2007

BCP - Lent 2 C - 04 March 2007

Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, NY
Mrs. Suzette Cayless
BCP - Lent 2 C - 04 March 2007

Genesis 15:1-12,17-18
Philippians 3:17-4:1
Luke 13:(22-30)31-35

“As the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell upon Abram, and a deep and terrifying darkness descended upon him.” Genesis 15:12.

What was happening? Was Abram having a nightmare? That verse intrigues me with its vivid picture of the deep and terrifying darkness that descended on Abram. This experience comes just prior to God’s making of a covenant with Abram - a prelude to that if you like.

Abram had answered God’s call to leave his family’s home and go to a place that God would show him. He headed for the land of Canaan but wandered from place to place, including a stay in Egypt during a period of famine. God several times promised Abram that his descendants would be given the land of Canaan but Abram and Sarai remained childless.

Now comes further reassurance that he will have offspring and as part of Abram’s conversation with God he enters this deep sleep and the deep and terrifying darkness comes upon him. Is this God’s way of letting Abram know the cost of what God is promising? The covenant with Abram will begin salvation history as we understand it.

This is going to be costly, difficult, and not to be lightly accepted by Abram. The deep and terrifying darkness is a way of warning Abram that he is called to be involved in a major activity in God’s scheme of things - a foretaste even of the darkness enfolding Christ’s redeeming activity on the Cross. The cost of salvation is great. We are meant to be aware of this. Like Abram, we have a choice as to whether we respond or not.

Now, while none of us likes enduring the times of darkness that inevitably occur in every human life we hesitate to enter into life with Christ, into the Light of salvation won on the Cross; we prefer a more shadowy existence. There is a wonderful passage at the beginning of Charles Dickens’ novel “The Old Curiosity Shop” and I want to read an extract from it. A gentleman, walking in the late evening, has been stopped by a young child asking for help in finding her way home. He takes her hand and leads her to the street she needs and goes with her to the place where she lives - it proves to be an old shop - what we might call a “junk shop.” He stands with the child, waiting for someone to answer the door:

“A part of this door was of glass unprotected by any shutter, which I did not observe at first, for all was very dark and silent within, and I was anxious (as indeed the child was also) for an answer to our summons. When she had knocked twice or thrice there was a noise as if some person were moving inside, and at length a faint light appeared through the glass which, as it approached very slowly, the bearer having to make his way through a great many scattered articles, enabled me to see both what kind of person it was who advanced and what kind of place it was through which he came.

It was an old man with long grey hair, whose face and figure as he held the light above his head and looked before him as he approached, I could plainly see. ... The place through which he made his way at leisure was one of those receptacles for old and curious things which seem to crouch in odd corners of this town and to hide their musty treasures from the public eye in jealousy and distrust. There were suits of mail standing like ghosts in armour here and there, fantastic carvings brought from monkish cloisters, rusty weapons of various kinds, distorted figures in china and wood and iron and ivory: tapestry and strange furniture that might have been designed in dreams. The haggard aspect of the little old man was wonderfully suited to the place; he might have groped among old churches and tombs and deserted houses and gathered all the spoils with his own hands. There was nothing in the whole collection but was in keeping with himself nothing that looked older or more worn than he.”

The Old Curiosity Shop - a repository for many, many things! Notice some of the phrases in the story: part of the door was “of glass unprotected by any shutter.” We like to close our doors, the doors to our innermost selves - but to God, there are ways in - like that unshuttered door made of glass. God looks in; He knows us. Then notice: “at length a faint light appeared through the glass which, as it approached very slowly, the bearer having to make his way through a great many scattered articles, enabled me to see both what kind of person it was who advanced and what kind of place it was through which he came.” A shadowy figure, picking his way amongst the collected items. God seeks us, calling to us, amidst all the clutter of our lives. Like that figure, we live in the shadows we have created - but God waits until we are ready to receive Him. The old shop was “a receptacle for old and curious things.” Many of us like to collect “stuff” - clothes, books, DVD’s - boxes in spare rooms, attics, basements - with unknown quantities of stuff. It’s not only our homes that become cluttered - it’s our lives. There is so much to do; so many places to go; people to see - and the habits that consume us, control how we act and react. We end up in a spin and do not know how to get ourselves out of it. So often, what we collect, the clutter in our lives, results in shutting out God - no time, no space, sorry God - later when I’ve tidied up I’ll try to make space.

We like to be in control - to organize when we will receive God! We want him on our terms. “The haggard aspect of the little old man was wonderfully suited to the place.” We shrink into the inner chaos and lose any sense of joy; we are fearful#; we struggle to maintain our position - all the time keeping God out and rejecting the grace that would effect transformation. We remain in a shadowy existence instead of venturing into the Light of Christ. Abram was challenged by the deep and terrifying darkness but accepted God’s invitation to obedience within a covenant with God.

I recall a journey in a canal boat - some 45 years ago - on a waterway running from Stoke Bruerne to Blisworth in England. At one point the boat passed through the Blisworth Tunnel - almost two miles long. It was totally dark in there. The boat kept moving ahead in this darkness until finally a pin-point of light could be seen. As we edged slowly forward that pin-point became larger, and larger. Suddenly we were out into daylight and could see clearly. Many of us do not enjoy too much light in our daily lives. It is as if we stopped our boat well inside that tunnel - in the half-light - where we can see enough, but not have to cope with the brightness that shows up everything. We want some truth - but not all. We want the comfort of God - but not the Love to which we are invited because the cost is great. Accepting God’s gracious invitation into the Light of Christ’s Love costs everything - all the stuff, the clutter, the hiding in the shadows. As T.S. Eliot said, we are called to a simplicity, a transparency of life, “costing not less than everything.” Abram experienced deep and terrifying darkness but he had the courage to trust God and enter into the covenant relationship that began salvation history. Do we have the courage to enter into the Light of God’s grace in Jesus Christ - and see?

Let us pray. Let us recall that as we come to Communion today, God is saying to each of us:

Drink freely
and deeply
of the cup of salvation:

Without hesitation
trusting in the reality
of God’s Love.

Let the stumbling blocks
of fear,
doubt, anger,
fall away.

Be open to the
gentle power of grace.

Receive new vision
as the
Light of Christ
dawns within.

Go forth refreshed,
delighting in Love,
to walk with God.


(c) 2007 - Suzette Cayless