Do-Nothing David

a sermon on 2Samuel7:1-17

A week ago, our building manager Anthony came back from getting various supplies at Menards. He said they had moved the Halloween display to make room for Christmas decorations. Anthony figured that—being a church—we might want to get in on a piece of that action and were running behind.

Well, last week we had a song from Hannah, of which Mary did a remix for her cover version. This week we have a promise spoken for David that gets echoed and repeated also to Mary before the birth of Jesus. It appears it’s not just the corporate capitalist extravaganza, but also our Narrative Lectionary that’s prompting us toward Christmas and a season pregnant with possibility.

But before I put up a big flashy twinkling star pointing toward baby Jesus, let’s take seriously what’s happening here in Hebrew Scriptures, in this part of earlier tradition.

Last week, we heard at the end of Hannah’s song about our revolutionary God of reversals working through an anointed king. Already that was looking past Samuel as prophet, past the first king he anointed, Saul, toward David. David was that youngest child who had been out tending the sheep, the meek and weak who overcame the giant conquering Goliath. He played music to soothe the troubled spirit of Saul. And he became a skilled and dynamic leader.

As today’s reading has begun, he has moved the capital to Jerusalem, from Hebron, closer to his hometown of Bethlehem. In the celebration of the move, David was dancing in front of the ark of the covenant—the special box that held the 10 Commandments and marked where God’s presence rested—with David leading the parade, not acting with pomp and honor fitting a king, but with sheer enthusiastic delight.

This guy was good at worship and praise, and that devotion fits today’s reading, where David said he wanted to build God a house, a temple, to move the ark of the covenant in from the tent of meeting to a permanent location, a beautiful shrine, something that seemed fitting for his devotion. This was accentuated because David felt guilty for building himself a nice house, a palace with imported materials and immigrant labor.

During this stewardship season, I could mention that you’ve invested in your own houses, and wonder about David’s guilt. I could point to grand and elegant cathedrals around the world, heartfelt projects invested in representing God’s grandeur and glory, and I could tell you those structures, the biggest and best of their time periods, exemplify David’s notion to build an appropriate house for God. Or we could notice that nowadays our magnificent expansions are about healthcare or entertainment or megamalls of glitzy shopping experiences.

But if you’re feeling compelled about donations and financial contributions to our congregation, or are worried about whether you’re feeling that way, and even if it would seem like a useful tool for me to clobber you with, the Bible story continues on: David thought he should build God’s house, but would not.

That resolution began with Nathan the prophet telling King David, “do whatever you want.” That’s not our usual understanding of religious ethics or of expectations laid on us. We tend to live with the feeling we’re failing, not doing it right, that there’s something more we ought to do or ought to give. It’s frequently accompanied by your feelings of guilt or inadequacy.

And so this is a stunning word of freedom: do whatever you want. You don’t need to feel bound by obligations, as if somebody is holding a moral standard over you that you inevitably won’t live up to. The prophet, the one who speaks the Word of the Lord, the angelic messenger of God directly says: “The Lord is with you. Do as you like. Whatever is on your mind. Go ahead!”

This is a really remarkable giving of permission, of license. You may think of the risks you’ve been holding onto, of ideas that excited you, of possibilities that seemed to have run into a wall.

On the other hand, it may be where your striving has been too excessive, where you felt compelled to keep going, even when it seemed painful or fruitless, where responsibility made you feel whipped and driven, where there was no carrot but only stick. Set that aside. You need not feel the coercion to be so duty-bound. Instead, as the prophet says, “do as you like.”

If that seems like ridiculously good news (and I hope you can hear that surprise, that freedom, that overturning of a too-typical sense of God always trying to force you to be better, to do right, to do more), then hold onto your hats, because it gets even more intense.

David said he wanted to build a house for God. Nathan the prophet said it wasn’t a requirement, but that David could do whatever he wanted. But then a follow-up message came from God, and Nathan had to offer a corrective, an intensification of the previous message: not only should David not feel obligated, God won’t allow him to do something that he could feel as an obligation. God says, “You won’t build my house.”

You have been freed from expectations that weigh you down. Still more, God forbids you from succumbing to such things. This may mess up a stewardship sermon, but if you’re feeling guilt about what you donate here or how involved you are, then God tells you to stop, not to do it, that it’s not for you.

God absolves David’s sense of shame, that he’s been too self-centered and should’ve been more pious in doing more for God, that he should’ve been more devoted and dedicated in celebrating and praising and glorifying God with some sort of accomplishment.

This relationship with God will not grow out of self-reproach or remorse, nor from your intensive efforts. Again, for any sense of divine mandate, that there are certain things you have to do to get on God’s good side, that God frowns on you not trying hard enough or being a good enough person, for any concept that you’re not living up to your potential, and how your internal so-called conscience tells you you’re doing it wrong and aren’t who you should be, for feelings of falling short and telling yourself you’re a disappointment, God puts a big red X over that, shutting down that internal dialogue, cancelling those demands, by ordering you to stop trying.

You’re not going to build a house for me, God tells David. I’m going to build a house for you, a dynasty, a promise of eternal blessing for the house of David.

In the story, this promise is a ways off. God said that a son of David’s would build the temple, but David hadn’t even met the woman who would be that boy’s mother yet. After their rocky relationship begins, the first son of Bathsheba will die shortly after childbirth, and David will grieve fiercely. Solomon will struggle with his family and stray from God. His descendants after will leave the kingdom a mess.

And yet here is God’s enduring promise.

Which may bring us back to Mary and thoughts of Christmas. The God who says you can do what you want, and whose only restriction is to forbid you from those obligations that make you feel you’re getting ahead or threaten to make you feel behind, we recognize this God in the birth of Jesus, not because he would grow up to be a mighty king winning battles like David, or because he would have wisdom and prestige like Solomon, or since he had the right DNA as a descendant, or would teach us how to behave rightly.

The angel proclaims favor to an expectant mother Mary and that this kingdom will have no end because God’s will will be done, on earth as in heaven. Even more clearly than in the illustrious but fallible King David, better than anyplace else, Jesus shows us God’s work in a birth as a baby to an unwed mother shut out from the glitz of celebration and any glory of sumptuous life.

Jesus grew to convey that this is God’s work and not our own in welcoming every last outcast he can find, forgiving every sinner he meets, and offering wholeness and redemption to those who need it, while disparaging the self-righteous and scoffing at the pretentiously pious, and spurning the machinations of the temple, that alleged dwelling of God, disregarding its very destruction. Jesus showed that this can’t be wrecked by an empire, in spite of their heedless injustice, can’t be undone by us followers who often forget to follow, can’t be stopped even by vile and violent death. It’s simply not dependent on you or your plans or timelines or sense of propriety and devout exertions.

This is God’s effort. This is God’s blessing. This is God’s promise. If something gets in the way of that, don’t do it. Otherwise, do whatever you want.

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Mary’s Extravagance & Jesus’ Smelly Feet

sermon for 5th Sunday in Lent (John12:1-8 Philippians3:4b-14)
Last week, we talked about Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal son—maybe talked too much about it! Rest assured, there’s only one sermon today, though you may count it almost as an 8th Prodigal sermon.

By having this Gospel reading back-to-back with last week’s, the similarities are striking. This reading today seems almost like it could be John’s version of, or response to, the prodigal parable. The center of both of these stories is an extravagant action, an unwarranted luxury, reckless devotion. Last week, it was the story of a father welcoming home his wayward son. This week, it is Mary, the sister of Lazarus and Martha, dumping out a ridiculous amount of perfume on Jesus.

Then there is also the skeptical or resistant response, viewing the central behavior as misplaced. Last week, the elder son was in that role of refusing to join the party and today it is one of Jesus’ disciples and closest followers, Judas, who scoffs at the extravagant, even wasteful, devotion.

We’ll focus on the most surprising change between these mirrored stories, the direction of devotion. We usually hear the parable as being about God’s amazing grace and unconditional love and abundant hospitality. In a reversal, here this woman is doing it for God. Now, generally we should hold the extravagance side-by-side and not change the values. As we said last week, we’re apt to evaluate that younger son who runs away as corrupt but simply identify the father as generous, when we could more equally see them both as risky.

Well, today we should make sure we’re not downgrading or writing off Mary’s behavior for being a woman. We shouldn’t see the father as a doting parent, maybe a kindly old man but instead claim Mary’s actions are scandalous, perhaps relying on Judas’s grim appraisal of her. Please notice that she’s not labeled a prostitute or a sinner; that’s not in this story (as if that would allow us to write her off or downgrade her to begin with!). While her wiping Jesus’ feet with her hair is an incredibly intimate deed, we should correspondingly note that the old father inappropriately went running down the driveway to kiss his son. So the distinction in these stories has nothing to do with one being a respectable male and the other a woman of questionable repute.

The difference, then, is the direction of devotion. Almost by default, we hear the parable of the Prodigal Son as a message about God’s forgiveness and welcome for sinners. More even than the love of a parent, we receive it as God the Father whose love really is inexhaustible and eternal. Mary’s action today, then, reverses that direction. If that was God’s love for us, this might be about our love for God.

But that’s a hard category, and in the end I’m not sure it leads us to where we want to be. Last week we cited the small catechism on God’s generosity, which goes on to say that “for all this, I owe it to God to thank, praise, serve, and obey.” It’s a pretty easy view that we ought to return to God gratitude of heart and mind and voice, that we should bring a reciprocal love to God with all our soul’s life.

We could read that in this passage today, that Mary is returning to Jesus and finding a way to pay back what was given to her. There’s a lot of current thought on the nature of gifts, whether they can ever be truly free or if, of necessity, it creates a demand in us, that we indeed “owe” something back. This is easy enough to see in our own lives, like when someone brings a present to your birthday party. Or the obligation in thank you notes or a return invitation for dinner or even—worst of all—being emotionally in debt.

For Mary we could see this in a much larger sense. It mentions being at the table together with Lazarus. The amazing thing is that just a few verses before, Lazarus was dead, rotting in the crypt. Yet because of Jesus’ compassion and love and because of his power over death and his insistence on life, Mary had her brother back, the restoration of the community of family, the wholeness of life as it should be, a glimpse of resurrection. Mary had reason to be enormously grateful to Jesus. So as extravagant as her gift was, it wasn’t out of line.

There’s all kind of precedent for that in our lives, too. Thinking about health and encountering death, paralleling the situation of Lazarus and Mary’s family, we might not be surprised at health care costs and exorbitant bills. When life is on the line, we may find the extravagant expense actually worth it.

Or we could take this as a stewardship story. Then I could tell you that your giving to church is important. What you return as gifts from God to be shared here are crucial (including for my salary!). We might see it historically in ostentatious architecture of glamorous churches representing faith. But overall I don’t believe this story about Mary pouring perfume on Jesus’ feet is just encouraging you to fill your offerings with greater recompense.
In the end, while it doesn’t seem so astonishingly peculiar that God would welcome a sinner like you—the compassion of the prodigal story we may be eager to claim for ourselves—still, this next direction must seem out of place, well more than you’d lavish as your faithful response.

Indeed, instead of this being about what you owe to God or how you repay a gift, I believe it is rather ridiculous. It’s an action that makes no sense. We begin to see that by having to agree with Judas: This is a foolish waste! The value of that perfume—costing a year’s worth of wages!—could most certainly have been better-used. Caring for those in need is one obvious alternative. Even if Judas were going to steal it, though, he likely would’ve found a better use than what Mary did.

If there’s any question how odd Mary’s action is, we might notice that for all of our cosmetics these days, we still don’t rub deodorant on our feet, much less even spritz them with perfume. It’s meant to be absurd. One person compared it to showing up at a dinner for Mother Teresa with an $800 bottle of wine; it would just be so apparently wrong, unfitting for her goals, and also, then, against the goals and ministry of Jesus.

I’d contend that even his line about “the poor you’ll always have with you, but not me” rightly highlights or intensifies the silliness, how fleeting it is, without accomplishing anything lasting. Then he says she’s anointing him before his death for burial. That alone is shocking. Anointing is a big word for our faith. Messiah and Christ are the Hebrew and Greek words for Anointed. This practice—originally about being chosen by God as a priest or prophet or rule—has come for us to be centrally identified in Jesus as the Messiah, the Christ, the Anointed One.

Yet he isn’t chosen to reign over us, to drive out the oppressive empire, to inaugurate a new hierarchy of holiness at the temple. Instead, as Mary understands, Jesus was going to die. Talk about putting your money on a losing horse! Not only is Jesus not going to come out ahead; he’s not going to cross the finish line. Six days before Passover, when he’ll be arrested and crucified, Mary gives him more honor than would be due anybody else. Not just a last chance to express herself before he’s gone, she is showing that in spite of his death or exactly through it, he is indeed the Messiah, the Christ, the chosen one Anointed to do God’s work.
Yet again, somehow this one killed for insurrection, a threat to the political establishment, abandoned and betrayed by his friends, tortured and shamed—this ultimate loser still has the greatest value. As Paul says today, all other gains are a loss. Everything else by comparison is “rubbish.” It’s one of my favorite Greek words: skubala. It’s Greek vulgarity, literally meaning “crap.” Anything else not only pales next to Jesus; it stinks to high heaven. The only thing that matters is the surpassing value of suffering with this dead loser.

But how do you explain that? We’d have to admit, it is ridiculous to put your faith in this wantonly foolish prodigal Jesus. With Mary, you go looking for God in a guy with smelly feet. You risk this intimacy and make yourself vulnerable. It’s impractical that two millennia later you’re still gathering here to keep following him, that you continue in this silly devotion. It’s ludicrous that you’d give of your income, still trying to further his work, to keep this church of his going. Even to keep giving to the poor ignores doing the obvious thing of keeping it for yourself. You persist in striving after justice that’s a long way off. You dare to hope beyond death. You somehow see the world as it isn’t. Clearly, you’re not following cultural trends. It’s weird that you like singing together. Given how much else you have going on, it’s even peculiar that you take the time to be here today. You spend your time on plenty of other good things, and you could even find better ways to waste your time than being here.

And yet…here you are. Gathered around the anointed one with smelly feet who just managed to die. Here you are, still at this ridiculous practice, an extravagant waste.

I can’t explain it; you’ll have to let your faith do that.

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A Sermon about Sermons and the Word

2nd Sunday of Christmas — John 1:1-18
Six years ago, I was preaching on this Sunday, on these Bible readings, and started off with a Bob Dylan song. I only remember it because that was my last sermon before you sent me out on 10 weeks of sabbatical.

Recalling that, and being one week away from my last sermon before you send me out, I’ve been thinking of some of the sweep of my sermons and our lives together. As I’ve been here, serving as your pastor for 11 years and a bit, there are some things that you might’ve gotten used to hearing me talk about. Caring for God’s creation amid climate change, for example: pretty big themes. Love, likewise, widespread and fairly constant.

A more specific type of detail, you may recall I get a kick out of sharing the Greek word skubala, a word for waste, destined for the landfill or the sewer. It comes from Philippians by Paul, which you may also have realized I cherish and find important for our shared faith, because he emphasizes Christ’s devotion to you and how everything else by comparison is rightly called “crap” (also highlighting that I don’t shy away from us addressing coarse or difficult things).

Noticing that, you almost certainly also know that I talk lots…an awful lot…almost continually about Jesus. Maybe you’ll be fortunate enough to have a next pastor who doesn’t need to blather on so constantly with “Jesus this, Jesus that, Jesus is for you, Jesus loves you” all the time. I guess you could be praying about that.

But in the meantime, for eight days more, you’re still stuck with me and my Jesus talk, today with this start of the Gospel of John. This is also among my favorite Bible passages; it says so much, and says it so well. That has to make us think about how we try to share our faith, how I preach to you, or how we put words to what we believe. This reading talks about testifying, to be witnesses, categories for which it sets a pretty darn high standard.

Think about it this way: if I’ve been testifying to you and trying to bear witness and tell you about Jesus for the last 136 months, it could seem fairly disappointing that I haven’t managed to accomplish very much that’s explicitly memorable, unless by explicit you mean teaching a Greek cuss word. Of sermons I recall, I mentioned that Bob Dylan one. In another, I talked about making pumpkin pie. There are highlights in pieces of Bible studies and trying to peel back confusing layers and dig in to texts. But mostly from this pulpit, nothing resilient or glamorous. So little so, in fact, that perhaps you’ve even been asked on a Monday, if not at brunch after worship, “so, what did Nick have to say in his sermon?” And you’d have to reply with a shrug, “I dunno.” Quite frankly, there are plenty of weeks that would be my own reply.

If we’re trying to explain this in the kindest way possible, you may compare it to the meals you eat, that you can’t necessarily recall what you’ve had for each meal this past week much less over the years, but that those have nonetheless sustained you, the food has inexplicably given you what you needed to survive. Maybe sermons are like that, vital but entirely transitory and fleeting, working through that inexplicable Holy Spirit.

I mentioned recently that I’ve never re-preached a sermon. Partly that may be because they’re not all that great to begin with. But it’s also that the words don’t apply the same way in new times, when our lives are in different places, when the world is not the same.

Along those lines, with one more pre-Jesus detour along the way, let’s stop past old Christmas cards. Acacia and I were cleaning some stacks on shelves in the basement this week, which included sorting old Christmas cards. Those are nice words to pull out, to find former greetings and old tidings of cheer from another time and place. Among them were family and friends in photos, including watching new family members be added and then those babies changing year by year. Wide-eyed infants became cute toddlers who then took on poses and personalities. The transformations come so fast. My youngest nephew is 10 weeks old today, and every time I’ve seen him he has looked immensely different.

I’m eager to be done talking about me and turn our attention instead to—you guessed it—Jesus. So if we’re marking time since Jesus’ birth, this is day 10. Even at a week and a half old, that baby Jesus would’ve been different than when he was born. We’re past the point where he was named and circumcised at 8 days old. His family was already experiencing changes. The shepherds and angel choirs were gone and they were going on with life. Some of the news of this baby, some understanding of him was maybe beginning to sink in.

And, even though we celebrate his birthday with a very specific remembrance each year, though we look back on it and re-live it, after that nativity, Jesus was never a newborn again. (Unless you try to work it on a technicality with Bible verses about him being the firstborn from the dead, or by claiming that he’s present in and with each and every newborn. But still, you know what I mean.) Jesus continued to grow and change. Last week, almost as an out-of-place disjunction, we heard of him as a tween, almost a teenager, complete with testing boundaries and the attitudes still expected from adolescents.

Since he’s growing and changing and aging, that also would have to mean one way or another that Jesus was going to die. It ended up being on a cross on account of you, but even if we imagined him dying of old age, that still is a remarkable thing when we have identified Jesus with and as God. It completely fouls up any traditional concept of God, of divinity, of a supreme supernatural Being. As eternal, God wouldn’t be constrained by time. Being infinite is a term trying to define that God shouldn’t be bound by or even located in space. If almighty or supernatural—literally as above nature—God shouldn’t be governed by laws of physics or biology. We like those images, like to imagine God as bigger than any of those laws or boundaries, transcending everything that continues to confine us.

But if Jesus is God, we can’t say that. He is in time. He is in a particular place. He either couldn’t or didn’t fly away, disobeying gravity, or stop death from draining away life. Jesus undoes so much of that classic notion of God and gives us something new, totally different. This is a God who changes.

Again, it’s so nicely and enduringly said by this passage from the Gospel of John: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God” and this Word speaks all things into being, history we can accept and believe. Yet what happens next is that this Word of God is so invested in creation that when it has gone astray, when it stops listening to the Word, God continues striving to call it back, to speak again of love, to offer new beginnings. The Word that dictated, that set a plan and order for the universe also responds when things don’t follow that, don’t go according to plan. The Word is responsive. Those verses are about living, and struggling. And becoming, one of the richest ideas of our faith for our world, that what we might be or will be, we aren’t yet.

This, of course, isn’t just an innovative idea from the Gospel of John. All through our Old Testaments is a God who continues responding to our errors, our shortfalls, our forgetfulness, our rebellion. This is a God who continues to try new things, new approaches. This God is described on occasion with the surprising possibility of “changing his mind.” For our old, standard notions of God, that’d be impossible. God would have already known the future, and planned the future, and ruled out any other realities. But the God of the Bible is open and responsive, and so God can change God’s mind and meet you in a new way.

So our message as Christians and the good news we have to share is not static. This news is always new. While our faith may have some strong messages or timeless truths, they don’t stand once and for all but remain always changing as they engage again with fresh relevance for each moment in your life. The angel’s song at Christmas that “unto you a child is born, a savior” is a message we keep repeating, but what he has come to save you from or save you for is as new as each original sin and every individual moment of suffering. The ethic of our faith, to love our neighbors as ourselves, is reiterated and even identified as the “golden rule.” But what exactly it means to love your neighbor can’t be codified in some ancient rulebook. It’s new with every fresh work week, has its own meaning as school resumes tomorrow, and requires constant figuring in our families. More, it is different in our world of discerning what it means to love terrorists or prisoners or new basketball coaches or oil executives, just as it was a different set of boundaries and barriers and difficulties with your last set of neighbors, and for the previous generation, and back when God was walking around in the flesh.

Tim used to envision for us this as a Monty Hall kind of God, who let you pick what’s behind door number three and let you make a deal. This morning, we can simply identify this God as one who lets you make decisions and poor choices and yet won’t give up on you no matter how much of a bonehead you are. God is with you anew in a new year, is with me as I embark on a new thing (whether or not that was a good decision), is most certainly with you even when I won’t be.

I’m grateful at least for this moment that this isn’t my final sermon for you, because I don’t have any mighty or enduring or timeless “last words of wisdom.” All I have is the foolish word that God’s Word, the eternal Logos, the Sophia from on high, has come into our world, has become flesh to dwell with you, has come to reconcile you and redeem you and forgive you and love you. I don’t fully have any idea what that means for tomorrow, or even for the rest of today, or really even know what it means for you right this instant. But that’s the Word we have to proclaim and share, the Word who abides with you and lives in you.

Hymn: Of the Father’s Love Begotten (ELW #295)

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Wicked Tenants, Wicked Masters, Parabolic Grace

Sermon for 5Oct14         Matt21:33-46; Is5:1-8; Phil3:4b-14
Begging your pardon, but I’m going to start with algebra, trying to turn the diabolical instead to the Lord’s service.

index

Actually I want to play with an algebraic word:  parabola.  A parabolic curve, you may remember, looks sort of like a U.  Not incidentally, is related to the word “parable.”  Both are from the Greek meaning “to go alongside.”  For the math symbol, we can literally see two arms side-by-side.  We could think of the spoken parables as analogies, as illustrative examples.

But moving toward my larger point—and here’s where we get a bit math-y—is that parabolas start out going one direction, then all of a sudden turn the other way.  On a graph, the values would get smaller, smaller, smaller, then reverse and get bigger, bigger, bigger.  If you were expecting a trajectory, this is a complete reversal.

And what I’m really meaning is that Jesus’ parables are often parabolic.  They start out going one direction, then flip to the other meaning, catching you off guard.  I’m not sure if that’s exactly the intention in using the word parable for them (but there’s a fair amount I’m not sure of this morning).

So think of the most famous parables, both in Luke’s Gospel.  In the Good Samaritan, we listeners expect that the nice, holy people will stop to help the beaten up half-dead guy.  But it’s the miserable, foreign, heretic Samaritan who is the hero.  Or in the Prodigal Son, with that lousy son as the main character we think it’s going to be a morality lesson, of him repenting for squandering his father’s property.  But before he even gets a chance to apologize, with a sudden change of direction the father has run out to welcome him, bringing him home.

Instead of thinking of parables as straightforward explanations, actually it repeatedly says in the Gospels that Jesus used them for subversion, or confusion, maybe to make people ponder.  As one author says, “Far from being an illustration that shines understanding, it is guaranteed to pop every circuit breaker in their minds” (Capon, “Kingdom, Grace, Judgment: Paradox, Outrage, and Vindication in the Parables of Jesus,” p6).  Which makes sense, since if you’re trying to talk about what God is up to in the world, there’s mystery and uncertainty, right?

The surprise flip-flop is in a lot of parables. Jesus talks about the kingdom of heaven as yeast, a ritually unclean substance for his people.  He says that it’s like a mustard shrub, hardly the largest of trees, and actually a pesky weed for farmers.  And the very birds that Jesus praises for dwelling in it would be the ones to gobble up the farmer’s crops.  We’ll come back to that agricultural reality in a bit.

But first let’s presume for a moment that the regular reading of today’s parable is “right,” that it’s an allegory for the Bible’s story, each detail stand for something else.  In this analysis, the tenants in the vineyard are God’s people, but they aren’t providing the good things God expects.  So God sends servants, interpreted to be Old Testament prophets, but the laborers don’t listen to them.  Instead they beat them up and kill them.  (Indeed, there are stories of prophets like Jeremiah or Elijah having it pretty rough.)  Finally, God sends the Son, whom we identify as Jesus, who is also killed.  Thus far, the extended metaphor works okay.

Though we could be skeptical about calling God an absentee landlord, what comes next is not at all how we characterize our God.  It says that the owner “will put those wretches to a miserable death.”  Really?  Do we expect God is out to murder us if we haven’t produced enough fruits, haven’t paid up what we owe?  If God stands for the owner in this parable, it would really alter our view of God.  Which also brings up that the owner sends the son thinking that surely the misbehavers will listen to him.  But would we claim God expected that?  Shouldn’t God have known the son might end up getting killed?

So what if that’s not how we’re supposed to hear this story?  Let’s try another line of interpretation. To get a whole different set of images in your mind, picture a place far away from centers of power, where it’s easy for a small group of extremists to seize control.  They militantly take over the resources of villages.  Then they behead an American journalist.  And you know how the parable ends:  the Americans will come and unleash even more violence on them and “put those wretches to a miserable death.”  The facts and details really are the same with hearing the Islamic State in the story as when Jesus tells it, but it’s a dangerous adaptation.

Yet again, what if the parable is literally about tenant workers in a vineyard?  When the master tries to collect, either the workers refuse, or else they simply can’t pay.  Maybe it was a bad harvest.  Maybe the price of rent was too high, and the price of grapes too low.  Extreme debt was the biggest social problem in Jesus’ time (which is why the best translation of the Lord’s Prayer wouldn’t be about trespasses or sins but about debts and debtors, prayed by people who literally had no bread stored up for today).

But that situation of debt is just as epidemic in our time.  It’s true for farmers with low corn prices this year.  It’s true for Scotch Hill Farm, that can afford to rent less land each year because the cost keeps going up.  It’s true of us as individuals, plagued by credit card debts, blindly imagining we can keep consuming, which is the central reason we’re offering Financial Peace University again.  It’s what caused the Great Recession, with Wall Street greed of the big banksters and too many of us sucked into bubbles, getting in over our heads.  It’s even true on international scales when lesser developed countries go bankrupt over interest on loan payments.

Backed into that corner, what’s the answer?  Personal responsibility is fine and good, but when it’s predatory and institutionalized, then what?  Some reforms may come from the ballot box, but such comprehensive solutions weren’t possible in Jesus’ time.

So the story goes on that the workers revolted.  With escalating violence, they killed those who were sent, trying to stake out a little claim and keep the inevitable at bay.  But the inevitable has a way of catching up with you, and so the powerful master—quite obviously, of course—isn’t going to put up with it, but will come and kill them.  It was the story then.  It was true of feudal lords or sharecroppers.  It is bleeding to death by a thousand cuts still with debts today.  At the Poverty Summit this week, it was in stories of lives that completely fall apart because of being short just $50.

So where’s the point of the parable?  Does it side with the master, who may even represent God?  Is it in favor of the poor, oppressed workers, whose fate may be the same as the friends and family of Jesus?  For context, remember that African American slaves and plantation masters were both Christian, but with vastly different directions for their faith.  Or does trying to decide the meaning and find an answer just highlight our selfish prejudices or needs?

Let’s step back to notice something else:  Either way there are sides, and both sides turn to violence in trying to get their way.  Any of these decisions to act come as a response for feeling at a loss, short-changed and abused.  It sets up a competition, a conflict that is never resolved.  Even when you’re ahead, you feel like you’re behind.  There’s just no end to it.  That is called, plain and simple sisters and brothers, the rat race.  On this weekend of St. Francis, we may say that rats have a place in God’s creation, but God did not create you to be a rat in a race.

No, as Philippians sets before us, the race and the goal is not any of those competitions.  It’s not in how you can get ahead.  It’s not in the violence of trying to oppress others.  God did not create you to count your credits against others’ demerits, to compare your surplus over another’s lack, to measure your gains by what others lose.  No, if you think those are gains, you’ve already lost, because the goal, the destination, and even the course of your race is none other than Christ.

And that makes everything else rubbish, garbage, crap, our favorite Greek word:  skoobala.  When everything you wanted to invest your best in turns out to be fit for the sewer, that stunning reversal flips all of life on its head, the parabolic curve that turns all of your intentions around.  Christ even changes the meaning of death.

Life, then, is in continual striving to be Christ-like, making us ourselves the vineyard.  The fruits we produce aren’t for selfishly storing up.  We exist in order to nourish others, as Christ gave himself that you may live, so may you share freely and abundantly what you’ve been given with all your life, joined with love into the enormous sister- and brotherhood of creation.

But here’s the ultimate parabolic twist and turn:  even if you don’t do it, even if you can’t, even if you’re stuck in the rat race, by God Christ still loves you.  Already he is with you, not just trying to nudge you to do more, to be a bit better, not waiting for you to achieve or produce, but already lavishing you with every blessing.

Hymn: We Raise Our Hands to You, O Lord (ELW #690)

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