Proper 22A-20
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

Mt. Sinai was wrapped in smoke. Thunder and lightning and a thick cloud covered the mountain. A blast of a trumpet so loud it made all the people tremble. (Exodus 19:16). The people were afraid and stood at a distance when God handed down the Ten Commandments to Moses. They are rules to live by, wise guidance for life, an extravagant promise, a simple covenant built on trust. Love God. Love people. Love people in order to love God. Love God in order to love people. The view from Mt. Sinai must have been breath taking.

Fast-forward twelve hundred years to Jesus. The plan that began with Abraham and Sarah continuing through Moses on Mt. Sinai had run aground. We hear Jesus explain to the temple elders, “Listen to another parable!” he told them. The nation of Israel is like a well-appointed vineyard. God provided them with all they needed and more. God placed the whole enterprise into their hands. They are a privileged people. Their whole life, therefore, is really about just one thing: the call to tend and nurture the vineyard, cultivating and caring for God’s people so they might flourish and bloom and become a blessing to themselves, and to others, and to God, a light to the nations revealing God’s grace to the world. Yet the religious leaders exploited and mistreated God’s people — the people of Israel, God’s “vineyard.”

Jesus’ parable exposes the corruption of the religious elite and condemns their obsessions with privilege and power. The chief priests and elders are like the wicked tenants. They abuse their authority, dishonor God’s house, and mistreat God’s messengers. They killed the prophets and now would kill God’s son. Likewise, the wicked tenants in Jesus’ parable meant to put an end to our whole story. But the cross of Christ proved to be a new beginning.

This week, Christians around the world celebrate the feast of St. Francis of Assisi, commemorating the life of a 12th century monk whose values of nonviolence, simplicity, and care for creation become more important with each passing year. In honor of St. Francis we bless our pets and pray for all God’s animals in worship this morning. His graceful, animal loving image adorns many of our homes, including my own. I read that Francis has become of the most popular lawn ornaments sold in America today. And yet it is hard to think of a more radical Christian witness.

The joyful beggar who so famously loved animals and nature, chose simplicity and poverty over status and comfort. He lived in a simple, shared, and non-violent way that shouted good news and joy to the world. Jesus accused the religious leaders of his day of yielding wild, sour grapes. What harvest are we gathering from the collective vineyard of our lives, our community?
We stand at a crossroads. Which way will we go? Like the children of Israel at Mt. Sinai, or the disciples at the foot of the cross, we look to the future with fear and trembling.

“In April of this year, National Geographic published a “flip” issue of their magazine — basically, two issues in one — to explore two starkly different futures for our planet. One half of the magazine presented the worst-case scenario: what Planet Earth will look like in fifty years if we do nothing substantive about climate change.
The writer described a grim, dangerous world of mass extinctions, searing forest fires, deadly heat waves, fierce storms, and widespread suffering for the human race.
The other half portrayed a more hopeful, verdant vision: what Planet Earth could look like in fifty years if we harness our time, ingenuity, resources, and technology now to undo at least some of the damage we have already done. In this scenario, we would find sustainable ways to feed ourselves. We’d clean up our oceans, rivers, and lakes. We’d provide carbon-neutral energy for all. We’d reimagine our homes, streets, cities, and corporations in light of the most pressing needs of the environment. We’d begin to reverse climate change, and prevent many, if not most extinctions. ‘It’s impossible to know who is right,’ Susan Goldberg wrote about the two contrasting visions in her Editor’s Note for the issue. Everything will depend on the decisions we make in the coming days, weeks, months, years, and decades.” (Debi Thomas A Lament for the Vineyard, Journey with Jesus, 9/27/20)

“When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child” (I Corinthians 13:11). I admit, I used to think we had things pretty well figured out. There is a great awakening today at how much our lives could be better and how urgently we need change. Not only for the planet, but also for gender equality among all our siblings in Christ and justice for all God’s children of color.

Sometimes I feel this generation is like Moses on top of Mt. Nebo—that other mountain. There God showed him the whole promised land while knowing he would never be allowed to walk there. (Deuteronomy 34:1). It feels as if on January 20th we will either be in one world or entirely in another. Once the thunder, cloud, smoke, and trumpet blasts of the election season are finally over we shall we whether the promised land will be for us a reality or remain just a dream. The decisions we face are rarely so urgent and consequential as they are now. It is understandable how we might confuse the question about our future with the outcome of the election. We forget how long has been at this. The moral arc of the universe is very, very long but it bends towards justice. The children of Israel crossed over Jordan as a people. It didn’t matter about Moses. God raised up new leaders from the people, by the people, for the people. It was the people’s work to enter the promised land, to cultivate it, and sustain it. It is our work, regardless of who sits in the oval office, to extend the promise of God’s grace to all people now.

In fact, we already have one leader, one lord, one God of all. God’s money is on the human race. God is heavily invested in you. Who–or what—is your money, your time, your talents riding on? We heard Jesus say that we are stewards. We are privileged and most richly blessed. Let us join hands and welcome the future, as full partners with God. Look, together we enter into a new land of promise where the lives of all, including and every creature, may flourish through the abundance of God’s amazing grace.

Proper 21A-20
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

I said yes but I meant no. It was years ago at camp. Sky Ranch is a high-altitude Lutheran bible camp. In the mid-1970’s, the nearest pop machine was at the ranger station in Pingree Park, a mile and a half hike away. A kid named Evan asked me to buy him a coke. I said sure. He gave me the money. I went on the hike. I bought the coke. On the way back I shook that can. I dropped that can. I kicked the can. I beat it up with a stick. The other kids thought it was pretty funny and so did I –until it was time to give Evan his soda. I think I was trying to tell him what a jerk I thought he was. All I did was show what a jerk I was. Words are empty and hurtful things when not backed with our deeds.

Jesus told about a father who asked two sons to work in the vineyard. Which did the will of his father? I know who has my vote. As father to five children, four of them sons, I am delighted when any one of them helps out regardless of how they might have complained about it at first.

The chief priests confronted Jesus in the temple. The day before, Jesus entered the city riding a donkey in triumph. Crowds lined the road, shouting “hosanna!” Afterword, he fashioned a whip of cords and violently drove the moneychangers out from the Temple. The religious leaders are furious with Jesus. They can’t believe this no-name backwater preacher’s nerve. Because their words were empty the faith of their fathers had become poisonous and hurtful. “The tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you,” Jesus said (Matthew 21:31).

The controversy in the temple that day drew everyone’s attention. The priests asked Jesus, “by what authority are you doing these things…?” (v.23). But there was so much tension they seemed to forget their own question. It’s like what happens to us sometimes in the middle of a twitter storm, or while dealing with a global pandemic, or in a climate emergency, or maybe a national uprising about systemic racism and gender inequality, or on the eve of a national election, or a contentious Supreme court nomination, or when we are worried about how to do school online, or about the economy, specifically our jobs, or how to feed our family, or any one of a number of things that can come at us in life to knock us off our feet and take our breath away.

Who gave you authority Jesus? The priests asked a good question. Maybe they weren’t really interested in hearing Jesus’ answer. Maybe they hoped he would claim to be a God, or a king, or anything else they could use to get the Romans to take him down. The religious leaders might have been saying yes to God, but they were living in a way that said no. Their walk didn’t match their talk.

For the chief priests the price of admission to God’s vineyard was too high. But to us who recognize our need of grace Jesus’ fellowship is a lifeline. Jesus’ answer to the priest’s question is vitally important to us today because it is also our question. In the midst of so much tension and confusion how can we know what is of Christ and what is not? How do we meet adversity without adding to the problem? How do we defeat our enemies without becoming just like them?

I think we find an answer today in Jesus’ story. Jesus said, by their fruits, you will know them (Matthew 7:16). We recognize words of authority by what follows in their wake. Love begets more loving. Mercy begets more compassion. It doesn’t matter about education, or credentials, or status, or power. The mind of Christ is revealed in words and deeds that give life to grace.

Over the centuries, Son number one—the one who said “no” but lived “yes,” has become an icon of what it means to be a faithful follower of Jesus. His example points the way out of chaos and into the vineyard where God welcomes sinners even though their hearts and minds remain divided.

“What Jesus opposed through the story of the father and the two sons was all forms of religion that stop at empty words. All forms of piety that don’t move us into the world of concrete action on behalf of justice, mercy, equality, love, and compassion. All forms of Christianity that flicker to life on Sunday morning, but then fade out between Monday and Saturday.” (Debi Thomas: “Words Are Not Enough,” Journey with Jesus, 9/20/20.)

In our second reading from Philippians, Paul reminded us we do not labor alone. More profound than any work we do for God is the work the Holy Spirit does for us, in us and through us. Martin Luther wrote, “It is as if a wolf devoured a sheep and the sheep were so powerful that it transformed the wolf and turned him into a sheep. So, when we eat Christ’s flesh physically and spiritually, the food is so powerful that it transforms us.”

We work out our salvation “with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Philippians 2:12-13). We learn to follow Christ to other vineyards. By their fruits we learn to recognize other brothers, other sisters, and other siblings in faith, regardless of their creed or religion. The salvation we work out in fear and trembling in God’s vineyard includes work together to fashion a community characterized by mutual love, harmony, humility, and unselfishness (2:2–4). Rivalry, conceit, and selfishness are evaded, as well as grumbling and complaining (2:3–4, 14). Our salvation, therefore, is not simply the activity of God upon us as passive and solitary human objects but is a work of the transforming power of God’s grace and faithful human activity working together.

At the font and at the table, through water, bread and wine, through Word and witness, we trust in God dwelling within us to provide guidance and counsel—regardless if we are more like the first or the second son – even as we continue to struggle with the questions. In welcoming Christ, we become more generous and hospitable toward each other. In welcoming in each other, we open and give greater honor to Christ. Yielding to God’s authority empties us of selfish rivalries, including those with our enemies, and lends dignity to even the most modest human life. This is the vineyard to which we are called. This is our work. May God strengthen us for it now, and in all the difficult days that may lay ahead, so that we may say “yes” and live “yes” to the glory of God.