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Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Could the world be about to turn? (A27O)

What about the greed and corruption of those tenant farmers in the gospel today? Good thing nothing like that could ever happen these days, or like the ungrateful, spiteful grapes in the parable from Isaiah 5.
The vineyard of the LORD of hosts is the house of Israel,

and the people of Judah are his cherished plant;
he looked for judgment, but see, bloodshed!

for justice, but hark, the outcry!

I wonder why the following verse was omitted from the reading. Maybe it’s the drama of ending the reading with that bold, angry statement, but wouldn’t there be an even broader context to have heard the prophetic words of Isaiah from verse 8?
Woe to you who join house to house, who connect field with field, 

Till no room remains, and you are left to dwell alone in the midst of the land!

Here, clearly, the prophet is accusing land barons of swallowing up all the small homes and farms around and establishing larger estates. I guess I hope that it’s not because this further explication of the reading would touch too close to home in too many countries, because Isaiah reads woe upon the acquisition of more by the rich at the expense of the poor.

When thinking about the gospel for this Sunday, I found it enlightening to remember a couple of things. First, the metaphor of Israel as vineyard of God is an old one, and it’s part of the consciousness of the people who are listening to Jesus. They know vineyards; their families may have small ones; they know both tenant farmers and absentee landlords and they have very firm opinions about them. Parables are always difficult; they are part of oral tradition, and are remembered in different evangelical communities for different reasons and placed in different contexts in the gospels. This parable appears in some form in all three synoptics and in the Gospel of Thomas. In Matthew, it appears after the entry into Jerusalem during Holy Week, and is part of a series of confrontational parables which Jesus spoke before his arrest.

I was reading some online homilies and essays pointed to by one of my favorite sites for this sort of thing, Girardian Reflections on the Lectionary. One of these homilies draws a startling line from the parable of the day laborers, through this parable, to the Last Supper, and the sharing of the cup. Girardian reflection interprets history and the Christian experience through the lens of mimesis, the desire within the human heart for what is good, even when the other person already possesses it. This desire and defensiveness leads to an ever-increasing spiral of violence within social systems that can only be resolved by scapegoating, that is, ritual murder. (This is a gross oversimplification, but there’s plenty to read out there about it.) Girard speculates that the origins of both civilization and religion were in response to this mechanism within human intercourse. The story of Jesus turns this on its head when the victim turns out to be the Son of God, and therefore completely blameless, exposing the violence for the random act that it is. Jesus replaces sacrifice with a blinding awareness of God’s presence and the nature of God as complete gift, as agape. God is the one without envy and from whom nothing can be desired that is not freely given; he replaces the bloody sacrifice of previous ritual with the unbloody sacrifice of a meal of bread and wine. Jesus has a radically different view of God, and offers us a radically different humanity.

So for whomever we’re cheering in the parable, whether for the absentee landlord who keeps escalating his demand for payment until he sends (and loses) his son, or for the tenant farmers who are busy about trying to get more than they have and in the process lose their lives, everything ends in disaster. We’re left looking at each other in dumbfounded emptiness at the storm center of violence and chaos. As one commentator noted, in a previous parable, the vineyard workers had been offered the opportunity by the telling of the parable to enter into the generous and egalitarian mindset of the master, who pays the last first, and the same as the others. Instead, we grumble that we worked harder, should have more. Now, we sit down at the table to drink the cup of grumbling, the grapes of wrath, now transformed by the God agape and his Christ into the gift of God’s presence and love, unconditional and complete. “I am the vine, you are the branches.” The kingdom is made up of grousing laborers, murderers and the murdered. It’s like the gospel was written by Steve Jobs: Think Different. The world is about to turn.

Music at St. Anne this weekend:

Gathering: We Have Been Told (Haas) David's classic song both establishes the overarching metaphor in today's liturgy (that of the vineyard) and also plants the celebration firmly in paschal ground, with a text we associate with Easter and the presence among us of the risen Lord. It's always good to get off to a brilliant start with a song everyone will join in robustly.
Psalm 80: We Are God’s Vineyard  (Cooney, unpublished). Since this psalm only comes around every three years (in this form, that is — it’s also one of the seasonal psalms for Advent with a different refrain), I’ve never tried to publish this setting, and I’ve changed it and adapted it over the years. In the last revision of the lectionary the final verse (4) has been added, so I guess I should look into writing a fourth stanza for it. I don't think that verse four was part of the text for Sunday when I did this setting, but I could be wrong.
Preparation Rite: We Praise You (Michael Balhoff, Gary Daigle, and Darryl Ducote [the Dameans]). This song, from the Dameans’ groundbreaking 1978 collection Remember Your Love, combines a number of psalm texts into a beautiful hymn of thanksgiving.
Communion: I Will Be the Vine (Liam Lawton). Liam’s gentle setting of the John text is a reflection on what I wrote above, a way of putting the “vineyard of the house of Israel” at the table of Jesus. It is he alone who can make us all that we can be, offering “many chances” (not my favorite phrase, but...) against our many missteps to live and never die.
Recessional: Anthem (Conry) When it comes down to it, the parable of Isaiah is an invitation to recognize the evil, particularly economic oppression, that we wreak upon one another when we're not busy with our sabbath prayers, and to change our ways. The parable of the wicked tenants and the vengeful landlord demonstrate what a circular argument violence is. But God doesn't do what the landlord does. God is not the landlord. Jesus returns after being slaughtered by "church and state," in a way of speaking, and his words are just, "Peace be with you." Conry's song calls us to be "Christ to one another," and to be "justice for the poor." Let's go in peace, and do that.


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